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Habitual Offenders

A True Tale of Nuns, Prostitutes, and Murderers in Seventeenth-Century Italy

In April 1644, two nuns fled Bologna’s convent for reformed prostitutes. A perfunctory archiepiscopal investigation went nowhere, and the nuns were quickly forgotten. By June of the next year, however, an overwhelming stench drew a woman to the wine cellar of her Bolognese townhouse, reopened after a two-year absence—where to her horror she discovered the eerily intact, garroted corpses of the two missing women.
Drawing on over four thousand pages of primary sources, the intrepid Craig A. Monson reconstructs this fascinating history of crime and punishment in seventeenth-century Italy. Along the way, he explores Italy’s back streets and back stairs, giving us access to voices we rarely encounter in conventional histories: prostitutes and maidservants, mercenaries and bandits, along with other “dubious” figures negotiating the boundaries of polite society. Painstakingly researched and breathlessly told, Habitual Offenders will delight historians and true-crime fans alike.

344 pages | 29 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

History: European History

Literature and Literary Criticism: Romance Languages

Music: General Music

Religion: Religion and Society

Women's Studies


"Monson’s combination of style and substance makes this a thoroughly engaging work to read. His ability to move from the smallest of significant objects, silver-handled forks and scarlet jackets, to examine the struggles for power between the Pope and Europe’s most powerful families is notable, resulting in a work highly enjoyable for academic and lay readers alike."

Women's History

"Monson's Habitual Offenders is an enthralling amalgam of sex, violence, and scholarship. At the center of the story are the abduction and murder of two reformed prostitute nuns in Bologna in April of 1644. From this relatively banal event, the ramifications spread ever more widely, involving priests, nobles, cardinals, a king, and finally the pope himself. The most harrowing chapter of the story describes in detail the judicial murder of a prisoner by the illegal use of enhanced interrogation techniques. Plus ça change. . . ."

Frederick Hammond, author of Music and Spectacle in Baroque Rome

"A box overflowing with exquisite linens and lace, a faux-marble cupboard with a cat painted on the side, and a red leather, reliquary crucifix whose ‘top’ had to be rescued from the convent sewer: Monson’s latest foray into the archives plunges readers into an early modern world that pullulates with signifying objects. Their meanings unfold in the long series of investigations that follow on the murder of two remarkable women, former prostitutes become nuns whose flirtatious acumen as laundresses kept an admiring clientele crowding the convent gate. In reconstructing their story, Monson delivers cut-to-the-quick truths about survival strategies for individuals and families, both great and small, caught in networks from Bologna, through Venice and papal Rome, reaching as far as Mazarin and the king of France."

Alison K. Frazier, author of Possible Lives: Authors and Saints in Renaissance Italy

“Monson is both a careful historian and a compelling narrator, helping us delve deeply into the daily lives of seventeenth-century Italians from all regions and walks of life. What emerges is a page-turner of a whodunit made especially compelling by Monson’s extraordinary and subtle ability to convey the diverse personalities of his many historical subjects and to plunge his reader into the world of early modern Italian culture.”

Andrew Dell’Antonio, author of Listening as Spiritual Practice in Early Modern Italy

“Unorthodox but engaging . . . . Habitual Offenders stands as an engaging and promising example of accessible scholarship that combines deep archival work with narrative panache.” 


“The book is finely evocative of matters of life on the streets of Bologna and much else at the time. . . . [It] offers countless insights into its characters and their actions in a carefully constructed historical context.”

The Historian

“The range of sources gives us an ever clearer sense of the contortions, conflicts, and contradictions of the early modern judicial process. . . . Monson details how diverse convent communities were, disrupting early modern prescriptions and modern assumptions alike.”

Renaissance Quarterly

"[T]his account is engaging, both for seeing how a skilled historian brings together disparate sources and for the insights it provides into the social and cultural life of enterprising marginal women, violent young men, besotted lovers, too-clever-for-their-own good social climbers, haughty aristocrats, and determined prosecutors in early modern Italy. Just who the habitual offenders were in this motley crew remains to be hashed out in arguments among captivated readers."

Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal

"[A] page-turner....What animates the pacing of this Monson’s convincing construal of dialogue....One can admire the author’s panache as a storyteller as much as his perspicacity as an archival sleuth."


"Craig Monson’s most recent foray into the dalliances of early modern Italian nuns, Habitual Offenders, represents another remarkable feat of archival research and historical reconstruction. By combining court testimony and local gossip, high and low culture, Monson provides a detailed and carefully documented glimpse into the underbelly of Italian politics, religion, convent life, and intrigue."

Annali d’italianistica

"The author’s meticulous archival documentation, however, reveals the intricate real life of the times, complete with bunglers, semi-innocent victims, common soldiers, shopkeepers, petty nobles, nuns, prostitutes, and priests, as well as members of the high nobility and church officials. . . . The book’s content might interest folklorists researching street culture, youth gangs, criminal organizations, fascist or other mushrooming political movements, evangelists, behind-the-scenes power mongers, and military or factional conflict of any kind."

Journal of Folklore Research

"Craig A. Monson, ­emeritus professor in music in Arts & Sciences, sifted through more than 4,000 pages of primary texts in order to tell the tale of two nuns who fled Bologna’s ­convent for reformed prostitutes in 1644. A search for the nuns went nowhere until their ­bodies were found a year later in the wine cellar of a ­Bolognese townhouse. The scandal touched priests, nobles, cardinals, a king and even the pope."

The Source, Washington University in St. Louis

Table of Contents

List of Figures
Cast of Characters


1 Airing Dirty Linen
2 A Tale of Two Sisters
3 The Soldier of Misfortune and the Tailor’s Son
4 A Grave Mistake
5 Pas devant les Domestiques
6 Novus Homo
7 Light at the Top of the Stairs

8 Dragnet
9 Cat and Mouse Games
10 Home Court Advantage

11 “In This Town They’re All Malicious Liars!”
12 “I Don’t Know This Suor Laura Vittoria!”
13 “Se Sarà Fatto Pamphilio / I Barberini Andrano in Esilio”
14 “A Few Days in Jail for Love of Me”
15 Return to the Scene of the Crime
16 A Gentleman Never Tells
17 Unfinished Business
Selected Bibliography

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