While in Florence researching Renaissance music in 1986, Washington University professor Craig A. Monson made the first of his discoveries about Renaissance era nuns. In some Italian convents, they strayed from directives to sing only sacred chants. In times when the opera houses and other entertainments were closed by church and local government officials, either to protect public morals or health (there were many plagues), some convents drew crowds to hear their talented nuns singing secular songs. Often the audience could not see the cloistered nuns, and the songs were sometimes sung during liturgy, but the Italians were desperate for entertainment and enjoyed the music. Monson even found lyrics to bawdy songs sung by nuns who performed in outlandish costumes, but this was not common. Usually, nuns were still behind iron grates, but the locks were sometimes broken. He had to learn more.
So, where do you think Monson found old reports on what sixteenth and seventeenth century nuns did wrong? In the Vatican Secret Archive, of course, which is not exactly secret, as he tells us in Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy. For centuries, the Vatican received frequent reports from all the dioceses detailing investigations into the misbehavior of priests, monks, and nuns. Much of it now seems really petty, such as nuns sneaking out of convents to attend operas (when the operas were allowed by local officials) or using olive oil on their salads when the local cardinal had forbad dressings. Other sins were more serious. Punishments were always serious. One nun spent eight years imprisoned within her convent for going to the opera. Then they let her come downstairs for mass.
At the heart of the matter was a lack of religious commitment by many of the nuns. Many did not even want to be nuns. Some of them were daughters for whom fathers did not want to provide dowries. Others were illegitimate. The Roman Catholic Church had rules that no woman could be compelled to join a convent, but there was little enforcement of the rules. One Italian merchant prince stipulated in his will that upon his death his palace be turned into a convent where a dozen of his unmarried and widowed female relatives would become nuns. They had no choice. These unhappy women eventually burned the palace down to escape, but church officials rounded them up and put them into other convents until it was rebuilt.
Compelling narrative is not Monson's strength, but there are many fascinating stories for devoted history readers to enjoy. The book belongs in larger public library collections. You will probably have to order it through ILL.
Monson, Craig A. Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy. University of Chicago Press, 2010. ISBN 9780226534619.