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Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy Hardcover – November 15, 2010

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 264 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (November 15, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226534618
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226534619
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.9 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,157,952 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


Nuns Behaving Badly wears its learning with a smile, but it throws a sharp light into dark Roman Catholic corners.”

(The Economist)

“Don’t miss ‘Spinsters, Silkworms, and a Flight in Flagrante,’ or any of the other lurid tales. Beautifully produced, exquisitely designed, mint copies of this are likely to become collectors’ items. Copies signed by the author, even better.”
(Laurence Vittes The Huffington Post)

“[A] rollicking good read.”
(Robert Curry Parergon)

“Forget the catchy title: Craig A Monson has produced a scholarly gem, commemorating some of the feisty women lurking behind convent walls in 16th and 17th-century Italy.”

“In a brilliantly packaged piece of ‘nun-sploitation,’ author Craig A. Monson has woven together five separate tales of convent mystery into a fascinating examination of the female religious community in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy. . . . Arsonists, escape artists, lovers, and dabblers in the occult—Monson unveils them all in this brilliant work.”
(Erik W. Goldstrom Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians)

“Impeccably researched and extremely accessible, Monson’s book opens up a whole new world of convent and church politics in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy.”
(Larissa Tracy, Longwood University Sixteenth Century Journal)

“All of the stories are engaging, and all triggered crises that might have disrupted convent life for generations. . . . If readers discover that they have purchased something quite richer in texture and historical content than the mildly humorous exposé of naughty nuns that they might have been expecting, so much the better.”


“Monson . . . goes to great lengths to reimagine the past in the liveliest of terms, in scenes and dialogue pulled from the dusty envelopes of material that he poured over in the Vatican Archive. Few of the nuns who exist in that archive had a voice. Monson, at long last, makes a valiant stride toward giving them one.”

(Jenny Spinner, Saint Joseph's University Journal of Medieval Religous Cultures)

“Monson is a graceful writer who frequently goes beyond historic contextualization to create a distinct atmosphere. . . . This is book is as learned as it is delightful. It should command a wide audience, from specialists in early modern Italy, religion, and gender studies, to the general reader.”
(Dyan Elliott, Northwestern University History of Religions)

“Drawn from proceedings before the papal Congregation of Bishops and Regulars held in the Vatican Archive, the five true stories Craig Monson tells reveal much about the constrictions of convent life in Italy from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries. As the subtitle makes clear, these are not titillating tales of sexual peccadilloes but accounts of nuns attempting in various ways to challenge the oppressive regimen imposed by their masculine superiors. Written in vivid informal prose by a seasoned researcher who knows his subject intimately, this masterpiece will amuse and inform a wide range of readers both within and beyond academic circles.”

(Anne Jacobson Schutte, University of Virginia)

“Fantastic stories of arson, magic, and nights at the opera—Monson presents a veritable Canterbury Tales detailing convent life in early modern Italy as seen through the adventures of unruly nuns. But unlike Chaucer’s classic work, all of these stories are true. Meticulously researched and carefully crafted, this book is a brilliant tour de force in its erudition. At the same time, it is a riveting page-turner that will interest scholars and general readers alike and also serve as an important resource for courses in gender studies, history, and music.”—Jane A. Bernstein, Tufts University
(Jane A. Bernstein, Tufts University)

“For centuries, more than three-quarters of upper-class women in Italy were immured in convents, willingly or not. From the Vatican Secret Archive, Craig Monson has worked like a detective to uncover the secrets of this closed world, revealing the yearnings and frustrations of women who were ‘dead to the world.’ This beautifully written, gripping book tells the stories of nuns who sought escape. Some just sang forbidden polyphony, one slipped out in disguise to catch the latest opera, and an entire convent burned down their cloister so they could all go home.”

(Edward Muir, Northwestern University)

“Monson’s book is a treasure hunt through the archives, uncovering hoards of gold: stories and characters from convent history, sad, bad, mad, and scandalous enough to make a novelist’s mouth water.”

(Sarah Dunant, author of Sacred Hearts: A Novel)

“A very original take on remarkable material. Monson’s thorough and impeccable research into convents of Bologna yielded many cases of imaginative insubordination, and he tells the stories with evident surprise and amusement, imposing a light touch on subjects that were in their historical period and setting quite serious. Cleverly written.”

(Elissa B. Weaver, University of Chicago)

About the Author

Craig A. Monson is professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Disembodied Voices: Music and Culture in an Early Modern Italian Convent.

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Customer Reviews

3.6 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on January 10, 2011
Format: Hardcover
You remember those nuns who plaintively sang, "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" They had it easy. Nuns in convents four centuries ago practiced black magic, or romance among themselves or with men who visited them, or practiced arson. Like Maria, they followed the seductive art of music, and might even sneak out to hear an opera. It's all in _Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, & Arson in the Convents of Italy_ (University of Chicago Press) by Craig A. Monson. The author is a professor of music and was doing research on the history of nuns as singers, composers, and instrumentalists in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy. He was poking around in archives in Florence and the Vatican, literally in bales of old documents, many of which seemed to have been filed away 400 years ago and never looked at since. He was doing serious research in his field, but he seems to have vital interest in naughtiness that all of us share to some degree. He found plenty of it; there were scandals and misdeeds aplenty among the sister singers. He might have seemed to be just another researcher among the veterans within the Vatican stacks, but while he gathered data for his larger work twenty years ago, he'd come upon shocking stories and find himself chuckling. The researcher sharing the desk nearby got used to this; "All right. What did you find now?" would come the question. From the same deskmate came the suggestion that Monson retell some of the stories forgotten centuries ago. Let us give him hearty thanks. Here are five of the most interesting of the histories he found, written in a wry and wide-eyed style. He says the tales might be just the thing to keep for reading in the bathroom or on an airplane flight, but he is too modest.Read more ›
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Anson Cassel Mills on March 15, 2011
Format: Hardcover
First, about the dust jacket. The front cover features a faux-National Enquirer typeface, and the reverse, a monk flagellating a bare-bottomed nun (bottom tinted yellow). The author's photo shows him in a pullover, shades, and a cowboy hat. Let's hope this sort of thing does not become a common expedient for marketing "cross-over" academic books. For one thing, the young woman at the library checkout desk gave me a sidelong glance.

There is little about sex here (though teenage boys in search of titillation are free to use their imaginations). Instead, the author, a musicologist, has written up five stories he gleaned from the 17th and 18th century "Proceedings before the Papal Congregation of Bishops and Regulars" at the Vatican Library. The tales include stories about nuns who use folk magic in an attempt to find a stolen viola, a violent row over some chapel embroidery, a nun who masquerades as a priest to attend the opera, and cloister members from the same aristocratic family escaping their family-donated convent by burning it down.

Monson writes well (if too chattily for my taste) offering reflections on his research in the Vatican Library as well as attempts at contemporary relevance. The authorial voice is often necessary to fill gaps because the primary sources are investigative documents written by the nuns' male superiors, men uninterested in tidying up loose ends of the incidents they related.

There is much of interest here: sidelights on monastic music and the raising of silkworms, for instance. What one will not find is much about religion. Apparently all the women featured here were relegated to the cloister by families trying to save dowry money. None seems to have had a religious vocation.
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By Martin TI on December 6, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Imagine if some Hollywood bad girls were locked up in a convent. What would happen? Devil worship. Break out. Witch craft. Arson. Intimate relationships...(This is, in fact, a serious history book. Well researched, well written and very interesting, since it documents a part of the past never documented before).
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a book that was an okay read. Some of the chapters were interesting about the activities of Nuns in convents; however, this was not an easy book to read because of the very small type. Nuns Behaving Badly by Craig A. Monson was published some time ago and to be honest, I did not find it to be a compelling read. Nevertheless, if you are a catholic or someone interested in this topic you may enjoy this book. I do suggest you read this book with a magnifying glass unless you are very young and have superman eyes.

This book has various stories about all the activities that went on in the convents. It shows that in spite of the Nuns supposedly being highly religious, because they are married to God, they are in reality human beings with the same desires and interests as everyone else.

In conclusion, some people may find this book very interesting but I thought it was merely a fair read.

Rating: 3 Stars. Joseph J. Truncale (Author: Never Trust a Politician: A critical review of politics and politicians)
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By Linda L. Pflueger on September 4, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Our book club stopped reading after valid attempts. Dry read, just did not get anyone connected or interested. Very disappointed.
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