Silvia Evangelisti, Nuns: A History of Convent Life. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2007.

Silvia Evangelisti, Nuns: A History of Convent Life. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2007. £17.99, ISBN 978 0 19 280435 8 (hardcover), 301 pp. 

Reviewed by: S. Karly Kehoe, Department of History, University of Guelph.

The publication of a history of convent life is a good sign. Not only does is show that scholars are taking notice of these women who were so intimately involved with the shaping of society, but it demonstrates that major publishers are aware of and willing to support this growing field of study. Silvia Evangelisti’s book, Nuns: A History of Convent Life, is a highly readable text for the non-specialist that offers a useful introduction to the early modern convent. The purpose of the book is to demonstrate that despite their small numbers, nuns played a crucial role in society. Evangelisti encourages those scholars investigating the economy, politics and religion to include nuns in their studies since convent administrative and financial records, biographies and artefacts are important historical markers that provide valuable insight. This book concentrates mainly on Catholic Europe during the early modern period, though the discussion occasionally extends to Britain and North America. Evangelisti draws her material almost exclusively from secondary sources and has organised the book into seven theme-based chapters.

In the first chapter, “On Nuns and Nunneries”, Evangelisti outlines the relationship between elite women and the convent and shows how a woman’s entry into the religious life had the potential to sustain or secure her family’s social and economic rank. Her description of how they lived, what their daily routines were and what their responsibilities were offers useful detail for those readers who might be unfamiliar with this topic. The second chapter, “Cloistered Spaces”, focuses on the enclosure of nuns and beginning with the introduction of Periclusoin 1298, it moves on to the reaffirmation of enclosure by the Council of Trent in 1563 which Evangelisti justifiably treats as a turning point. There is also an amusing discussion on how a number of communities manipulated their surroundings (particularly parlours) to achieve a closer connection to the outside world. The third chapter, entitled “Voices from the Cloister”, considers the rich tradition of convent writing. Usually consisting of spiritual autobiographies published posthumously, Evangelisti highlights how, despite enclosure, their influence spread beyond the convent walls. Perhaps the most important feature of this chapter was the attention she paid to those subversive writers who challenged the accepted position of women and called for their intellectual abilities to be recognised. Juana Ines de la Cruz, a prolific writer who challenged the strictness of enclosure, but who had her own slave, was highlighted as an example. In the fourth chapter, “Theatre and Music”, the usefulness of these two forms of art as teaching tools for young nuns, patrons and members of the local society is highlighted. In the case of the Ursuline nuns in Quebec, music is linked to the nuns’ missionary efforts and this conjured up memories of a well-known Canadian Christmas carol, the Huron Carol(English translation included in full below). Written by the Jesuit missionary Saint Jean de Brebeuf in the mid-seventeenth century, the song has a haunting melody and recounts the story of the birth of Christ with a terminology that was familiar to local tribes. The Ursulines worked closely with the Jesuits and this song offers an excellent example of how music was used to foster conversions. Chapter Five, “The Visual Arts”, explores fine art as expressions of devotion and reveals that convents were often used to enhance the reputations of patrons who occupied themselves by decorating and adoring their interiors. The sixth chapter, “Expansion: Nuns across the Globe” traces the movement of nuns beyond Europe and attempts to shed light on their importance as missionaries and the final chapter, “Open Communities for Women” provides a glimpse of where the religious life was headed as more and more women began to desire an active, unenclosed religious life.

Writing a history of convent life in Europe is a difficult task and in this Evangelisti was perhaps too ambitious. The book tends to revolve around foundresses and notable nuns of patrician origin and this comes across as too celebratory. A deeper investigation is wanting throughout this book and an obvious example comes from the sixth chapter when the Ursulines in Quebec are discussed. Evangelisti suggests that they adopted a ‘flexible educational approach’ (p.189) in dealing with the local Huron, Algonquin and Iroquoian children, but the evidence she cites suggests that the opposite was true. In addition to the overt Christian message, the children were taught embroidery and painting in the European style, they were taught to read, write and speak French, they were to wear European clothing and they were to be ‘properly washed and cleaned, literally de-greased’. (p.188) She also missed out on the opportunity to discuss how nuns like the Ursulines were connected to empire – what their role as women religious actually meant to international politics and nation-building.  Another problem concerns her handling of the servant nuns because although there is the acknowledgment that in a number of cases wealthy women brought their servants, or even female slaves, into the cloister with them, there was no expansion upon this crucial point. Whilst sources concerning the servant nuns and slaves are scarce, much more should have been done to illuminate their role because without them, the convent experience Evangelisti describes would not have been possible. Having said this, one of the most important elements of this book is her challenge of the notion that nuns were cut-off from society by their enclosure. She cites numerous examples of how these inventive and determined women found ways to manipulate their physical environment so that they were able to engage with the outside world.

There is always room for a general text that can better acquaint the non-specialist with the women who spent most of their lives beyond the public’s gaze and Evangelisti’s history of convent life does this very well. By providing detail on convent architecture, spatial organisation, the nuns’ daily routines, their dress and customs she satisfies, to some extent, the curiosity factor. This book will be an asset to those unfamiliar with early modern convents and will help them to become better acquainted with women who were clearly politically, culturally and religiously important.

Huron Carol


‘Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled
That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim and wondering hunters heard the hymn,
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found;
A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round
But as the hunter braves drew nigh the angel song rang loud and high
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

The earliest moon of wintertime is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory on the helpless infant there.
The chiefs from far before him knelt with gifts of fox and beaver pelt.
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.


O children of the forest free, O seed of Manitou

The holy Child of earth and heaven is born today for you.

Come kneel before the radiant boy who brings you beauty peace and joy.

Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.