Sunday, February 25, 2007

Women Suffering From Male-Dominated Religion

No, not Judaism and not Hareidim and not Naomi Ragen.


From a book review of NUNS: A History of Convent Life by Silvia Evangelisti

Dr Silvia Evangelisti is a scholar, educated at a slew of Italy’s finest institutions, and a researcher and expert in European gender studies. This fascinating book covers the years 1450 to 1700 and gives a scrupulous and hair-raising account of how the male-dominated Catholic church confined and controlled its female adherents, and how these women — often intelligent, passionate and devout — found ways to live full and fruitful lives within such punishing restraints. It is a powerful record and a fine contribution to the history of women.

Convents were often a woman’s first choice: they offered an alternative to being traded into an unhappy marriage and years of childbearing. Later, they offered wealthy widows a retreat. Families favoured them, too: convent dowries were lower than matrimonial dowries. Convent life among the daughters of elite families offered networking and educational opportunities inside and out of the porous walls. There was an easy coming-and-going with life outside, and a sense of the convent as part of the complex of urban existence. Social distinctions were retained, choir nuns being waited on by servant nuns. Often, piety would have been an optional extra.

All this was changed, first by the Reformation, then by the Council of Trent, when the Catholic church tightened the rules of enclosure and gave greater control to the male hierarchy. Even the architecture changed: grilles, gates, parlours and churches were policed to eliminate any outside contact. When, in 1575, the nuns of Santa Caterina in Florence offered spirited resistance, they were literally walled in on the orders of a “visitor from Rome”, who said he was going to give the prioress “the punishment that she deserved”.

What happened then is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit. Locked away from the world outside, nuns looked inward and found there genuine spiritual consolations. Many had mystical experiences, drawing on the inspiration of that most rigorous of reformers, St Teresa of Avila. Like her, they began to write. Documents poured out. In Spain, over 50 years, as many as 113 nuns wrote spiritual autobiographies. Their creativity took various forms: writing dramas, giving performances, setting up choirs and musical groups, composing and performing to the very highest level. They pursued the visual arts, too, painting portraits and frescoes. One is even mentioned in Vasari’s Lives. Free of the distractions of social and family life, their talents flourished.

There were casualties, however. For some, enclosure induced a state approaching madness: Veronica Giuliani, locked in the Capuchin Clares’ convent of Città di Castello, had daily visions. She filled pages and pages with notes, was suspected of heresy, denounced to the Holy Office, put on trial and subjected to invasive physical examination (not so far from the Marquis de Sade, after all). Equally eccentric, the Carmelite Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi had daily mystical raptures lasting several hours, during which she would work, sew and paint, while gesturing wildly and alternating rapid movements with sudden immobility. Both women are now numbered among the saints.

There were triumphs, too. Some of the finest early-feminist writing came from the pens of enraged nuns. The Venetian Arcangela Tarabotti chose titles that indicate her theme: Women Are no Less Rational than Men, Monastic Hell, and Paternal Tyranny. Meanwhile, in Mexico, Sor Ines de la Cruz was even more prolific, defending women’s intellect with a fervour that invited censure. But they couldn’t beat the system. Male power and judgment prevailed.

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