Boniface VIII, one of history's more truculent popes, had a rare talent for disrupting the peace of Christendom. During the late 13th and early 14th centuries, his boisterous efforts to assert papal authority brought him into conflict with many of the crowned heads of Europe. To some, he was an imperious, arrogant megalomaniac; by other accounts, he was a heretic to boot. On one issue, though, his pronouncements were decidedly less objectionable to contemporaries: women, Boniface opined, were not to be trusted. In the papal bull Pericoloso, promulgated in 1298, Boniface commanded that every nun in western Europe be restricted to her convent, never to glimpse the world she had left behind. Such notions of confinement were hardly new, but this was the first universal imposition of female religious enclosure in Christian history. It was an idea with a bright future ahead of it. For centuries to come, culminating in the rigorous decrees of the 16th-century Council of Trent, nuns were expected to shut themselves away, safe from the polluting influences of the workaday world.
The reasoning behind such developments was as pristinely logical as it was grotesque. Women were feeble, weak-willed slaves to lust, the ideal prey for the devil's blandishments, and only one flirtatious glance away from corruption. If they were to fulfil their spiritual duties, if they were to remain chaste brides of Christ, it was vital that, in Boniface's phrase, all occasions for lasciviousness be removed.
As Silvia Evangelisti explains in her important new book, this curious state of ecclesiological affairs was not without its compensations. Yes, many nuns resented their artificial world of high walls, locked doors and tinted glass. A courageous few even sought to escape it. Even those who thrived - those whose spiritual temperament was ideally suited to isolation - were still the hapless victims of their society's irrational anxieties about womankind.
But, for all that, nuns achieved a colossal amount. In fact, they were responsible for one of western Europe's greatest cultural flowerings. Sequestered nuns turned out to be impassioned spiritual thinkers, writers of exquisite poetry, composers of ravish- ing religious music, artists, historians and dramaturges. Evangelisti does a superb job of cataloguing these towering cultural legacies. Most poignant of all is her account of nuns such as Arcangela Tarabotti and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz who, in 17th- century Venice and Mexico, set about defending and articulating the talents and dignity of women, with scant regard for the debilitating cultural milieu in which they found themselves.
The extraordinary diversity of nunnery life also leaps from these pages. Some nuns sought a spiritual oasis. Others, former prostitutes and battered wives among them, sought shelter, while Jewish converts to Christianity pursued a route to integration. Still others were forced into convents by families who were unwilling or unable to stump up the hefty dowries demanded by early-modern marriage markets. As Evangelisti reports, a sample of 21 elite Florentine families reveals that, between 1500 and 1799, 46 per cent of their daughters were despatched to religious institutions. Marrying Christ was a good deal cheaper than marrying the noble boy next door.
Inevitably, given the length of her book, Evangelisti is obliged to leave a good deal out, and she also lacks the space to flesh out the significant differences between the competing religious orders of the period. On occasion, the reader encounters a reductive "nuns were this" and "nuns did that" approach to the subject. This was doubtless infuriating for Evangelisti, as well qualified a scholar as one could wish for, and it might well irritate the reader, too. Bluntly put, the book should have been twice as long: Evangelisti's considerable talents as a historian are not best served by obeisance to the broad brush-stroke. That said, she accomplishes a great deal. The intricacies of convent architecture, the details of daily convent life, its rules and regulations, are all brilliantly rendered. Most pleasingly of all, we move far beyond the usual suspects - Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, and so forth. We also see those nuns who headed off to the new worlds opened up by clashing Catholic empire-builders in Asia and the Americas. And those nuns who, when the curiosity-stifling grilles and heavy curtains finally fell away, rejoined the rest of us to pursue their active, in-the-world apostolates.
All told, the effort to segregate religious women, to stamp on their vitality and genius, never really worked. They had (in their more charismatic incarnations) the ears of kings and princes. Most winningly of all, they cherished their power and battled one another for influence and prestige. They were shut away but, as every convent-blessed city knew, they were, by methods sly and subtle, at the heart of civic life and worship. They say that borders stop armies but not ideas. It seems that the convent walls had a similar permeability.