While the study of women and religion in late medieval and Renaissance Italy has flourished in recent years, the experience of nuns often has been devalued or underappreciated. Convents commonly appear as dumping grounds for unmarried daughters who lacked vocations or as a reluctant choice for female intellectuals excluded from secular discourse. Enclosure itself is featured as a means for the ecclesiastical hierarchy to control charismatic women and their followers. Certainly there is substantial evidence for these practices, as well as for the vitality of women's spirituality outside formal institutions. But is it fair to assume that monastic communities acted as a damper on female expression, spiritual or otherwise? K.J.P. Lowe's new study challenges this assumption through an examination of convent chronicles as a record of female agency. For despite the Roman Church's efforts to increase its control over women's religious life, she argues that these histories demonstrate the nuns' self-confidence and rejection of the subordinate status that masculine authorities attempted to impose upon them. Richly detailed chapters provide broad evidence for the vitality of convent culture during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But perhaps most importantly, Nuns' Chronicles and Convent Culture reveals the diversity of female religious institutions in pre-modern Italy.
Three unpublished chronicles composed between 1523 and 1613 form the basis of her study. They derive from the Augustinian canonesses of Santa Maria delle Vergini (known as Le Vergini) in Venice, the Benedictine nuns of Santa Maria Annunziata (Le Murate) in Florence, and Santi Cosmae e Damiano (San Cosimato) in Rome, a community of reformed Clarisses attached to the Franciscan Order. Lowe introduces these houses at the beginning of the book, but instead of devoting chapters to an individual house as might be expected, she proceeds thematically through an analysis of factors that contributed to shaping convent culture. These topics include physical layout and decoration of the convents, the women's daily lives, liturgy and ceremonial life, and relations with external authorities including both secular powers (local government and families) and religious institutions (religious orders and the ecclesiastical hierarchy). Through each topic, she analyzes the representation of the community within its chronicle in order to reveal "connected differences" (a term adopted from Robert Brentano). That is, she seeks details that speak to the ways in which the nuns understood their lives. This comparative methodology, linked with her focus on multiple orders and cities is one of the strengths of her study.
Not surprisingly, she finds communal identity and convent tradition more developed than individual personalities. A comment about Le Murate's perspective may be applied more generally: "[the chronicles] adverted to the overriding religious objective of convent existence, paralleled by an understanding that within this that correctly focused individual effort and achievement would be rewarded, and finally taught the lesson that an understanding of the past was vital for a satisfactory future" (50). Medievalists may be surprised by her apologies for the chronicles' expressions of religious sentiment or for places where piety appears to quash historical analysis (e.g. 10, 26). But Lowe is responding to the frequent occlusion of convents chronicles as a form of historical writing because they did not necessarily conform to the patterns of the male-authored histories. She asserts that "there is...no essentialist female way of constructing history or essentialist feminine writing style, although there are traits, emphases and combinations that are more likely to occur in women's work" (40). And it is these moments that reveal the distinctive culture of convent life.
One example can serve to demonstrate how Lowe links particular representations to her argument concerning female agency. She analyzes how the women utilized their past in recounting their respective foundation stories. While each house arose in quite different circumstances, the authors similarly stressed connections to civic and ecclesiastical power or to saintly persons in order to enhance their status. The Franciscan nuns in Rome focused attention on Margherita da Sulmona, the abbess who came to the house in the 1450s to reform the convent under the auspices of the Regular Observance. They thus claimed a female impetus for reform, deemphasizing the role of the friars or other clerical authorities. The canonesses of Le Vergini feminized the "Myth of Venice" in recounting their foundation through the efforts of the pope and installation of the daughter of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa as first abbess. The canonesses used this tradition (for which Lowe finds documentary evidence) to protest their loss of independence in the face of imposed reform at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Arguably, from a Counter-Reformation perspective, this reform was needed. The canonesses were not enclosed, had private apartments, and took no vow of chastity resulting in an extraordinary amount of sexual activity (Le Vergini is obviously the model for the female community entered by the protagonist in Sarah Dunant's recent novel The Birth of Venus). Thus, a similar strategy reveals how the women in each house constructed their quite different institutional identities.
This example, however, also reveals one of the challenges of Lowe's book. Evidence is not drawn equally for each community in respective sections due to lack of data or differing emphases. The discussion can seem unbalanced, although it of course reveals each house's particular character. For example, Le Murate's transition from an unregulated community of female penitents into a large, well-endowed Benedictine convent receives less attention in its chronicle than the Venetian and Roman examples. However, a later section on ceremonial life in the convent reveals how support from the Medici and their allies enhanced the convent's standing in Florence. Another challenge simply arises from remembering the varied contexts and protagonists of each community in later chapters.
In sum, Nuns' Chronicles and Convent Culture demonstrates that these communities--even when women did not make the choice to enter--provided them with an opportunity for creativity, intellectual life, and leadership unavailable in the secular sphere. It is not clear how much can be extrapolated from these three well-endowed, patrician, and urban communities to other houses in Italy much less Northern Europe. But Lowe's work is to be recommended on its own merits and as a foundation for comparative work on women's religious communities. Nuns' Chronicles and Convent Culture can now be read with other works such as Anne Winston-Allen's Convent Chronicles: Women Writing about Women and Reform (Penn State Press, 2004) and Allison Beach's Women as Scribes: Book Production and Monastic Reform in Twelfth-Century Bavaria (Cambridge University Press, 2004) to enhance our understanding of intellectual culture within enclosed communities of women.