Here’s an audio version
As well as being a writer, I’m also a massage therapist. Some years ago, a woman in her 40’s came to me for treatment. She identified her occupation as school teacher, and only later in conversation did she tell me she was a nun. I was hugely intrigued, and I had to muster all my professional resources to stop myself grilling her tactlessly about her life and her choices. Gradually I learned that she had only stopped wearing the habit a few years ago, and that she lived in a small house with a handful of other nuns in a working-class neighbourhood.
I was deeply curious about her choice to adopt street wear, believing that separateness was one of the things craved by a woman who chooses to be a nun. Also, I had imagined that seclusion was one of the big draws to such a life. Have you ever thought about becoming a nun? I bet I’m not the only woman who contemplated it wistfully, if briefly, as a girl.
It’s a very uncommon choice these days, but it wasn’t always so. In a pre-feminist culture, life in a convent offered opportunities not generally open to women. Without birth control, any woman with a husband was subject to frequent pregnancies which were physically demanding, and often downright dangerous or fatal. The constant demands of child-rearing virtually assured that a woman couldn’t practice a profession, even had law and custom allowed it. An unmarried woman, unless she was wealthy, had little or no means of support, and was at risk, lacking the protection afforded by a husband, and the safety of being perceived of as leading a conventional life.
Until perhaps 250 or 300 years ago, the only place a girl could get any education would be in a convent school, and a convent was the only place where a woman could learn Latin and French, and thus be able to participate in the intellectual life of Europe. Literacy wasn’t common in 16th century Europe, and less so for girls and women. The only reliably literate women would be found in convents. Likewise, these dwellings, the larger of which included entire estates and looked much like corporations, offered women the opportunity to take on work as accountants, scribes, and administrators, roles simply unavailable to them in secular life.
What if a woman didn’t want to marry, or didn’t like men? The Catholic church, while not exactly what you’d call the best thing that ever happened to women, did offer women a retreat from a harsh world in which we could focus on a spiritual life, or pursue activities otherwise barred to us. In the 16th century when the Protestant Reformation dissolved monasteries and convents, women were left without this retreat.
To us, convents may seem like sober, uneventful places with no draw, but they could not have seemed this way to women 500 years ago. Of course we can’t know how many women chose that life out of genuine devotion, how many chose it for practical/political reasons, and how many had it chosen for them by families who could not afford to keep them, or who found them inconvenient for some reason. Certainly, one function of convents was to act as a place where troublesome women could be stowed discreetly away from public life, but it’s also true that in the past, convents played a significant role in public life. Like monasteries, they often filled the functions we now associate with schools, hospitals, hostelries, and social safety nets.