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"Superfluous daughters" in early modern Italy were, with varying degrees of force, pushed into nunneries

The Nun of Monza

I have been reading about the “superfluous daughters” in early modern Italy who were, with varying degrees of force, pushed into nunneries.

Unsurprisingly, there’s little detail about the process or the fate of the women, so it is said the best account is the story in Allessandro Manzoni’s I promessi sposi, which was inspired by the life of Marianna de Leyva, known as “the nun of Monza,” (Monza being a city near Milan).

After eight years of education in a convent she writes to her father saying she does not want to be a nun. Taken home, she is held in virtual solitary confinement and allowed not the smallest of pleasures. Finally she gives in and is whisked back to the convent:

“I am here,” began Gertrude, but on the point of offering the words that were to have almost irrevocably sealed her fate, she hesitated for a moment and fixed her eyes on the crowd in front of her. She saw, in that moment, one of her companions, who was watching her with an air of compassion mixed with maliciousness, and seemed to be saying, “Ah, the clever one has fallen into the trap!” That sight, reawakening with even more force in her soul all the old feelings, restored a little of her old courage and she was already searching for any answer other than the one dictated to her when, raising her eyes to her father’s face, as if to tests her strength, she saw such sinster anxiety, such threatening impatience that prompted by fear, with the same readiness with which she would have taken flight before a dreadful object, she continued, “I am here asking to be admitted to take the habit in this convent where I was so lovingly raised.”

Later, she took a lover and murdered a servant who threatened to expose her. There’s been at least one movie made of her story&#8212it is described as “nunsploitation,” so I doubt it has much value.

The text, described as “the first modern Italian novel,” is available in Penguin classics, and I note from Amazon that one of its “statistically improbably phrases” is “poor innocent girl,” which isn’t exactly reassuring as to its value as an account.

Even Google scholar doesn’t throw up anything&#8212sounds like a topic ripe for re-exploration.

This from Musical Voices of Early Modern Women: Many-Headed Melodies, T. Lamay (ed) Ashgate, 2005, “The Good Mother, the Reluctant Daughter , and the Convent,: A Case of Musical Persuasion, Colleen Reardon, pp. 271-286.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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