Get Thee to a Nunnery: The False Choice Presented to Us About Convents

If you ever study history in graduate school, you may notice sooner or later that you are continually presented with false dichotomies in the debates conducted by the mainstream. Example: did FDR brilliantly succeed in saving capitalism from itself, or were his heroic efforts to bring equality to the U.S. thwarted by nefarious special interests? Or this one found in the historiography textbook I’m using this semester: was Reconstruction about class or race? As my friend Tom Woods likes to say, the range of respectable opinion fits onto the intellectual equivalent of a 3″ x 5″ index card.

These false choices are presented to us in other fields of history as well. When I studied medieval history in graduate schools, one of the pressing questions I encountered was about the function of convents: were they havens for women from the oppressions of the patriarchy, or were they prisons? This commentator on Venetian art takes the latter position and wants museum- and church-goers to have this specter of broken lives before them when they view the “deadly lie”: portraits of ecstatic saints.

Now I can see why a secularist might feel this way about the Church. (I confess it’s hard for me to view the art of the French Revolution without seeing a guillotine superimposed over the foreground.) And I will be the first to admit that given the autonomous authority to choose their own path in life, some medieval and early modern aristocratic women who ended up in convents would have chosen something different. Many sons of aristocratic families who would have preferred a manor of their own ended up with careers in the Church, too.

The fact is that in any society, people’s choices are constrained by all sorts of external factors: formal or informal status, wealth, and technology, to name just a few. We play the hand we are dealt and make the best of it. So some of these women in 16th-century Venetian convents would have preferred to marry the Doge. Does that mean that they could not or did not find an authentic spiritual experience in the life that chose them? Does this author have any proof that the lives of these women were dull and boring, as he assumes?

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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3 Responses to Get Thee to a Nunnery: The False Choice Presented to Us About Convents

  1. Rachel Wishum says:

    I see only one problem with looking at history in this way; it makes it very hard to write a paper with a single, precise thesis.

  2. Fred Jewell says:

    The contrived choices which historiographical texts for undergraduates present reminds me of the film critic who said of the starlet in the movie being panned, “Her emtional portrayals ran the gamut from A-C” [or words to that effect].

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