Breasted misfits

August 28, 2012 | By | Add a Comment

While I was researching my book, I became obsessed by nunneries. It turns out there’s plenty of good info out there, in English, on Italian nunneries from the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance — particularly on how they were basically permanent storage lockers for unwanted or troublesome women.

This is a portrait of Sister Elena Anguissola, as painted by her sister Sofonisba in 1551. She was surely in one of the aristocratic convents, not a convertite, but isn’t it a beautiful painting? Sofonisba was a famous court painter in her time and led a long and happy life.

I wound up learning a lot about convertites — a particular type of  quasi-monastic institution that was home-sweet-home for all manner of breasted misfits. It seems that with respect to what anthropologists call “anomalous females” and social workers refer to “women at risk,” the guiding philosophy of the time was, “When in doubt, toss ’em in a convertite.”

While no historical study I came across explicitly said so, I think it’s fair to assume that the convertites were more or less hodpodges of heartbreak. Orphans, widows, naughty widows,  runaways, women secretly married to clerics, adulterous wives, battered women, victims of rape and incest, and women who rejected grooms selected by their fathers were routinely sent to convertites.

Then there were the prostitutes. In cultures where men marry comparatively late and extramarital sex is taboo, like Italy at that time, prostitution thrives because young men are theoretically barred from having sex for years after they’ve hit puberty. But apparently from about the 12th century onward, many Christian cities officially encouraged prostitutes to become “decent women,” even establishing refuges just for them where they could spend the rest of their lives doing penance.

Some of these houses even encouraged these women to rehabilitate, leave the convertite, and marry. Transforming ladies of the night into poster girls for penance and conversion was a high enough priority that in 1198 Pope Innocent III issued a decree praising men who married ex-prostitutes. Presumably by the early 16th century, after Columbus’s crew imported syphillis by the barrel, that particular offer went out of fashion: Reformed or retired prostitutes who had the disease were often housed in their own convertites, like one in Venice that grew out of a hospital just for syphilitics (Incurabili) in the late 1520s.)

But convertites didn’t just provide permanent housing for fallen women, they also were a temporary housing option other women who weren’t necessarily “fallen” in the sexual sense but were for whatever reason “in transition.”  Within the walls of convertites one could also find  temporary guests, like women whose marriage negotiations were particularly tense (gee, doesn’t that sound like fun), long term boarders (like widows who could use what remained of their dowries to pay for room and board until they pegged out), and prisoners. Sometimes courts even enforced separations between husbands and wives by confining the woman to a convertite — a sort of mandated cooling off period.

Then if a betrothal took an unexpected turn and all hell broke loose, convertites were also convenient repositories for women while the deal got sorted out. One story I came across features a young woman, Dorothea, whose fiancé, Vespa, led a band of men to snatch her back from the arms of another man with whom she’d run away. Vespa and his buddies placed her in a local government official’s house, where she insisted that she would only marry her boyfriend. So, she was packed off to the local convertite to contemplate her choice: Jesus or Vespa. Dorothea reportedly stalled as long as possible, making sure that everyone within earshot knew that “she would rather have any husband than become a nun.” Vespa eventually gave up and married someone else. The historical record is maddeningly silent on what became of Dorothea. My guess is that it didn’t end with “and she lived happily ever after.”

Then there were the situations which weren’t so much heartbreaking in the romantic sense, but still terribly sad and unhappy all the same. Juvenile rape victims were often sent off to convertites, though whether or not it was for their own protection or for punishment is often unclear. Consider one ten-year-old girl, Ginevra, who was gang-raped and lived at a convertite until adulthood, and a 13-year old girl by the name of Bella di Francesco who was raped by her mother’s lover and sent to a convertite; Bella’s rapist’s punishment included paying her dowry so she could later either become a nun or marry. (I’d venture that Rep. Todd Akin would argue that that was fair punishment for “legitimate rape.”) Then there’s the particularly ambiguous case of 16-year-old Lucretia Alvisi, who in 1531 was accused of an incestuous relationship with her father and of terminating a pregnancy. While her father was decapitated for the crime, she was seemly ordered into solitary confinement since 16 was, at the time, within the age of consent.

The most incredible convertite story I have to share is yet to come, though. Check back in on Thursday!

Filed in: history, The Little Book of Heartbreak | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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