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Nuns Behaving Badly

Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy

Nuns Behaving Badly

Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy

Witchcraft. Arson. Going AWOL. Some nuns in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy strayed far from the paradigms of monastic life. Cloistered in convents, subjected to stifling hierarchy, repressed, and occasionally persecuted by their male superiors, these women circumvented authority in sometimes extraordinary ways. But tales of their transgressions have long been buried in the Vatican Secret Archive. That is, until now.

In Nuns Behaving Badly, Craig A. Monson resurrects forgotten tales and restores to life the long-silent voices of these cloistered heroines. Here we meet nuns who dared speak out about physical assault and sexual impropriety (some real, some imagined). Others were only guilty of misjudgment or defacing valuable artwork that offended their sensibilities. But what unites the women and their stories is the challenges they faced: these were women trying to find their way within the Catholicism of their day and through the strict limits it imposed on them. Monson introduces us to women who were occasionally desperate to flee cloistered life, as when an entire community conspired to torch their convent and be set free. But more often, he shows us nuns just trying to live their lives. When they were crossed—by powerful priests who claimed to know what was best for them—bad behavior could escalate from mere troublemaking to open confrontation.

In resurrecting these long-forgotten tales and trials, Monson also draws attention to the predicament of modern religious women, whose “misbehavior”—seeking ordination as priests or refusing to give up their endowments to pay for priestly wrongdoing in their own archdioceses—continues even today. The nuns of early modern Italy, Monson shows, set the standard for religious transgression in their own age—and beyond.

Read an excerpt.

264 pages | 25 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2010

History: European History

Medieval Studies

Music: General Music

Religion: Christianity

Women's Studies


Nuns Behaving Badly wears its learning with a smile, but it throws a sharp light into dark Roman Catholic corners.”

The Economist

“Don’t miss ‘Spinsters, Silkworms, and a Flight in Flagrante,’ or any of the other lurid tales. Beautifully produced, exquisitely designed, mint copies of this are likely to become collectors’ items. Copies signed by the author, even better.”

Laurence Vittes | The Huffington Post

“Forget the catchy title: Craig A Monson has produced a scholarly gem, commemorating some of the feisty women lurking behind convent walls in 16th and 17th-century Italy.”


“[A] rollicking good read.”

Robert Curry | Parergon

“In a brilliantly packaged piece of ‘nun-sploitation,’ author Craig A. Monson has woven together five separate tales of convent mystery into a fascinating examination of the female religious community in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy. . . . Arsonists, escape artists, lovers, and dabblers in the occult—Monson unveils them all in this brilliant work.”

Erik W. Goldstrom | Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians

“Impeccably researched and extremely accessible, Monson’s book opens up a whole new world of convent and church politics in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy.”

Larissa Tracy, Longwood University | Sixteenth Century Journal

“All of the stories are engaging, and all triggered crises that might have disrupted convent life for generations. . . . If readers discover that they have purchased something quite richer in texture and historical content than the mildly humorous exposé of naughty nuns that they might have been expecting, so much the better.”


“Monson . . . goes to great lengths to reimagine the past in the liveliest of terms, in scenes and dialogue pulled from the dusty envelopes of material that he poured over in the Vatican Archive. Few of the nuns who exist in that archive had a voice. Monson, at long last, makes a valiant stride toward giving them one.”

Jenny Spinner, Saint Joseph's University | Journal of Medieval Religous Cultures

“Monson is a graceful writer who frequently goes beyond historic contextualization to create a distinct atmosphere. . . . This is book is as learned as it is delightful. It should command a wide audience, from specialists in early modern Italy, religion, and gender studies, to the general reader.”

Dyan Elliott, Northwestern University | History of Religions

“Drawn from proceedings before the papal Congregation of Bishops and Regulars held in the Vatican Archive, the five true stories Craig Monson tells reveal much about the constrictions of convent life in Italy from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries. As the subtitle makes clear, these are not titillating tales of sexual peccadilloes but accounts of nuns attempting in various ways to challenge the oppressive regimen imposed by their masculine superiors. Written in vivid informal prose by a seasoned researcher who knows his subject intimately, this masterpiece will amuse and inform a wide range of readers both within and beyond academic circles.”

Anne Jacobson Schutte, University of Virginia

“Fantastic stories of arson, magic, and nights at the opera—Monson presents a veritable Canterbury Tales detailing convent life in early modern Italy as seen through the adventures of unruly nuns. But unlike Chaucer’s classic work, all of these stories are true. Meticulously researched and carefully crafted, this book is a brilliant tour de force in its erudition. At the same time, it is a riveting page-turner that will interest scholars and general readers alike and also serve as an important resource for courses in gender studies, history, and music.”—Jane A. Bernstein, Tufts University

Jane A. Bernstein, Tufts University

“For centuries, more than three-quarters of upper-class women in Italy were immured in convents, willingly or not. From the Vatican Secret Archive, Craig Monson has worked like a detective to uncover the secrets of this closed world, revealing the yearnings and frustrations of women who were ‘dead to the world.’ This beautifully written, gripping book tells the stories of nuns who sought escape. Some just sang forbidden polyphony, one slipped out in disguise to catch the latest opera, and an entire convent burned down their cloister so they could all go home.”

Edward Muir, Northwestern University

“Monson’s book is a treasure hunt through the archives, uncovering hoards of gold: stories and characters from convent history, sad, bad, mad, and scandalous enough to make a novelist’s mouth water.”

Sarah Dunant, author of Sacred Hearts: A Novel

“A very original take on remarkable material. Monson’s thorough and impeccable research into convents of Bologna yielded many cases of imaginative insubordination, and he tells the stories with evident surprise and amusement, imposing a light touch on subjects that were in their historical period and setting quite serious. Cleverly written.”

Elissa B. Weaver, University of Chicago

Table of Contents

Dramatis Personae
1 Prologue
2 Dangerous Enchantments: What the Inquisitor Found, San Lorenzo (Bologna, 1584) 
3 Spinsters, Silkworms, and a Flight in Flagrante, San Niccolò di Strozzi (Reggio Calabria, 1673)
4 Perilous Patronage: Generosity and Jealousy, Santa Maria Nuova (Bologna, 1646–80) 
5 Slipping through the Cracks: A Convent’s Porous Walls, Santa Maria degli Angeli (Pavia, 1651–75)
6 Nights at the Opera: The Travels and Travails of Christina Cavazza, Santa Cristina della Fondazza (Bologna, 1708–35)
7 Epilogue

Further Reading

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