Top Five or Ten: Nuns Behaving (Badly)
We often find ourselves comparing the nunneries of late sixteen- and early seventeenth-century Italy to a fairly volatile combination of The Craft and Moulin Rouge—just not publicly. So when the Economist took note of Craig Monson’s Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy, we immediately put on our thinking habit and got to work. In the book, Monson resurrects forgotten tales and restores to life the long-silent voices of cloistered heroines, drawing attention to the predicament of modern religious women, whose “misbehavior”—seeking ordination as priests or refusing to give up their endowments to pay for others’ wrongdoing in their own archdioceses—continues even today.
The Economist delights in the “too modest” Monson’s tome, which “wears its learning with a smile” despite its serious milieu:
Convents in 16th- and 17th-century Italy were largely dumping-grounds for spare women: widows, discarded mistresses, converted prostitutes and, above all, the unmarried daughters of the nobility. Aristocratic families were loath to stump up dowries for more than one daughter. The rest were walled away. In Milan in the 1600s, three-quarters of the female nobility were cloistered. At the same time the church was cracking down on lax discipline, in nunneries as much as anywhere.
The result was a headache for the (male) authorities. With few genuinely spiritual nuns, convents were full of women finding ways round the rules through scheming and backbiting, through art or music or lesbian love and once, even, through torching their convent and escaping en masse. All this meant extra paperwork: complaints to the Vatican, petitions, investigations, and interrogations.
In tribute to the book, and in light of the fact that a title like Nuns Behaving Badly practically screams TOP FIVE or TEN (that might just be Kathy Najimy from Sister Act II, though), we’ve gone Gidget 2.0 and gleaned the archives for clips of our favorite righteous babes:
Sister Wendy Beckett: who hasn’t screamed YES! at 3 AM when this ascetic’s aesthetics air as a series of introductions to art history on late night public television?:
The Singing Nun, Jeanine Deckers (Soeur Sourire, or Sister Smile)—her tragic tale is definitely worth reading, if you’re not familiar or haven’t seen the 2009 or 1966 (starring Debbie Reynolds) biopics—everyone knows “Dominique” is the jam:
Nunsploitation was a popular film subgenre in 1970s Europe, especially in Italy, where Anita Ekberg behaves very badly in Giulio Berruti’s infamous flick Killer Nun:
Agnes of God. VHS Trailer! Norman Jewison directs, Jane Fonda gives us a psychiatric star turn, and Anne Bancroft and Meg Tilly engage the sisterhood:
Finally, rounding out our list: remember when Pierre Batcheff bicycles down the street wearing a nun’s habit in Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou? If only dream logic determined more of our fashion trends! Happy Friday: