Get thee to a nunnery

Virgins of Venice

Mary Laven <em>Viking, 284pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0670896357

In Renaissance Venice, the energetic pursuit of riches through trade walked hand in hand with the craft of politics at its most ruthless. The Serene Republic was governed by a self-appointed oligarchy determined to close ranks. To do so required birth control of the most rigid kind. The simplest way was to put surplus females into convents, especially as it was widely believed that, otherwise, a woman's lusts were insatiable; without husbands to govern them, women could not possibly hope to be chaste. "Aut maritus, aut murus" - if not a husband, then a wall. Thus, for centuries, roughly half the noblewomen of the republic were to be found, from the age of seven onward, behind the metal grilles of nunneries.

The system was bolstered by the high cost of dowries. It cost only 200 ducats to put a girl into a convent, where she would be cared for by other high-born women, often including aunts and sisters. By 1608, a family would need around 25,000 ducats for a wedding dowry, sometimes more. If parents tried to marry off more than one or two particularly pretty daughters, the result could be bankruptcy and the ruin of the aristocratic name; so the girls, obedient to their fathers and mindful of their duty - and no doubt bursting with snobbery - took the veil, whether they had a vocation or not.

The dozens of convents held two thousand or more noblewomen at any one time. But those who meekly (more or less) submitted to this tyranny might well, Mary Laven suggests in this lively study, have had a better time of it than their married counterparts. For they were beholden to no men: not to bombastic fathers nor cruel husbands. Despite vows of poverty, they could take their own money inside, and servants (who also became nuns); they often dressed in finery, gave parties and banquets, and generally had a jolly time. The wealthiest kept court among frequent visitors. They continued to intrigue with relatives; battles included the election of the abbess, who was a powerful figure in Venetian society (the doge "married" the abbess of Le Vergini to claim the protection of the Virgin Mary, the city's patron saint). The more humble were teachers, or ran businesses such as vestment-making. At carnival time, the women could slip outside, their veils replaced by masks. Putting on plays in the convent at this time of year was quite acceptable, attracting an audience of revellers. In many cases, the nuns exercised a remarkable degree of freedom and choice over their daily lives - provided they did not cause a scandal.

Much of what we know comes, inevitably, from moments when riotous behaviour drew down the wrath of the authorities. On average, two or three "criminal and disciplinary trials" took place every year between 1550 and 1650. Intimacy and close friendship abounded. In 1614, two nuns brought their male lovers to live within the aristocratic San Zaccaria; there, the sisters were accustomed to dress as men as well as women. Swains would pursue their favourite nun, sending and receiving sweetmeats, letters and clandestine visits. Two sisters, one in her forties, whacked a great hole in their convent wall to facilitate their nightly adventures. Abortions could be procured. Boccaccio's Decameron paints a heady picture of the hypocrisy, while the satirist Pietro Aretino describes a young novice at a convent feast where the highlight, at the close of the meal, is the entry of a servant with a basket of dildos (made from Murano glass). Laven argues that this merely gave male writers an excuse for mild pornography, but numerous witness reports and repeated clampdowns by magistrates confirm that transgressions were widespread.

It wasn't all fun. Many women hated the high walls and longed for freedom, though few made a break for it. The nuns were often ripped off and had their property stolen. Lesbianism was not uncommon; so was what amounted to persistent child abuse. The enclosed life could be a nightmare. In 1561 a priest named Giovanni Pietro Lion was beheaded after an appalling career of rape and depravity at Le Convertite. His job as father confessor to 400 women enabled him to silence his victims; some committed suicide. It was 19 years before his cruelty was ended.

It took Napoleon to put a stop to all this; in 1810, the old convents proved ideal as barracks. One is now the women's prison, another home to the carabinieri. Laven's splendid short account is to be read with thanks for living in the modern world.

Edwina Currie's most recent book is This Honourable House (Little, Brown)