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Thursday, August 24, 2017
Date Posted:


Inferno Monacale - The ‘Hell of Nuns’

Part 1: Tracing it back to Rome’s Consilium emendenda
Dr Clive Gillis

It was little more than a century ago that angry Cardinal Manning described a run of harrowing revelations of nuns escaped from convents as one of five contemporary signs of Antichrist.

Rome is now turning the tables.  For instance Dava Sobel’s book Galileo’s Daughter, which concerns the astronomer’s relationship with his nun daughter, was recently a top seller, romanticising Counter Reformation nuns.  But this was a special case.  Although Galileo’s letters to his daughter, who was incarcerated in a Florentine convent, were destroyed for dear of the Inquisition, his daughter’s letters survive.  Romanist historian Eamon Duffy describes this insight into Galileo’s feelings as “splendid and moving”.  And indeed we are moved by his daughter’s insightful letters, faithfully dispatched together with supplies of his favourite plovers eggs, collars and shirts, fruit and game all conjured up from her convent prison.

Warehouses for discarded women

But Galileo was a unique man with one exceptional daughter.  The noble nun’s sacrificial support for her famous father diverts us from the awful reality of covenant life after the Council of Trent.  Sobel necessarily alludes, in passing, to some of its horrors.  At least Natasha Walker of Vogue spotted that, fascinating as it was to get close to Galileo through his daughter, it did not conceal “the abyss that yawned” between their two lives.

Galileo actually had two daughters and a son from an illicit relationship with a Venetian noblewoman, much younger than himself, who later married someone else.  Galileo procured a fiat of legitimisation for his son, but his daughters were doomed.  This was routine for the whole upper and middle classes of the day.

Convents were simply “warehouses for the discarded women of middle class and patrician families”.

The doom of the Galileo sisters cannot be disguised.  Galileo must have pulled strings to see them both admitted to the same convent at only 13 years of age. He no doubt wished the bright older daughter to protect the vulnerable younger.  In admitting more than one daughter Rome ran the risk of a particular family gaining undue influence and blocking regulations abounded.  Cardinal del Monte’s letter to Galileo “concerning your daughters claustration” is still extant.  Galileo is told bluntly that any admission of his daughters before the canonical age of 16, “is not allowed…this rule is never broken and never will be … When they have reached the canonical age they may be accepted by ordinary dowry; unless the sisterhood already has the prescribed number; if such be the case it will be necessary to double the dowry.  Vacancies may not be filled up in anticipation under sever penalties…”.

The novice mistress

We find the novice mistress was a neurotic self harming psychopath “overpowered by moods of frenzies,” who, “tried twice in recent days to kill herself … she is crazy and cunning at the same time … we live … in fear of some new outburst”.  The older daughter sheltered the younger by giving her sole use of their shared cell while she endured the nightly ravings of the novice mistress on her sister’s behalf.  The younger sister’s love of wine, eccentricities, moods and indeptedness through internal despair.  Vivid details such as extracting their own decayed teeth leaving the older toothless at 27, the enduring of bitter cold, inadequate diet and the inevitable placement over them of the unstable novice mistress as spiritual mentor are harrowing.  Galileo is frequently requested to send money as the black economy thrived on nuns desperate to purchase single cells or other privileges to escape the unbearable.  The older daughter seeks money from Galileo to avoid sharing with the novice mistress and again later to divert disaster as the younger sought to be Cellarer in charge of wines.  The more desperate the nuns the richer the convent as the nuns would beg, borrow and steal to relieve their misery.  So much for the Convent romance.

Inferno Monacale

Locating the voice of an ordinary Counter Reformation nun to explain this wholesale imprisonment of young girls is no easy matter.  However in 1990 an Italian academic press published a little known manuscript written by a typical incarcerated Counter Reformation nun Sister Arcangela Tarabotti.  Her proper name was Elena Cassandra Tarabotti, and she vividly described her feelings and experiences in a Venetian convent sometime about 1640- 1650.  She wrote frankly in a cathartic manner never expecting her words to reach the outside world.  Her tragic testimony was simply entitled Inferno Monacale (‘Hell of Nuns’). There is apparently no English translation as yet.  Elena’s cry is the first link in a chain that leads us right back to the Consilium emendenda as the origin of what she calls the ‘Nun’s Hell’.  We traced the history of the Consilium emendenda, in BCN 78, December 9, 2005.  It was a secret report on the state of Rome after the Reformation in which Rome’s own top people utterly condemned her as ‘an offence to all Christendom’.

Dragged at knifepoint

At the time that Elena wrote, over 3,000 nuns out of Venice’s total population of 150,000, were incarcerated in as many as 50 Venetian convents, at best through gross deception and at worst having been dragged there at knifepoint.  Elena daringly addresses her plaint to, “The Most Serene Republic of Venice”.  She protests boldly against the flower of Venetian womanhood being forcibly imprisoned.  She touchingly describes the moment of enforced consecration for all nuns as a funeral.  “But turning again to the funeral ceremony, that in little or nothing is different from a (real) funeral.  (The young unwilling novice) is prostrated on the stone floor.  She is covered over by a black drape and a lighted candle is placed below the feet and at her head.  Above her the Litany is being sung.  Every sign points to a life extinct.  She feels just as (if she were at) her own funeral.  Under this coffin she accompanies (the singing of the Litany) with tears and gulps (sobs) sacrificing all her senses to her passion and pain . .. The course of her misfortune is irremediable.”  (Author’s translation).

The tyranny of their fathers

And who or what is to blame for this outrage?  Elena states clearly it is, “The tyranny of the fathers”.  The Nuns Hell opens with a special dedication to fathers and parents who force young women to become nuns.  She describes the cunning involved.  Like paedophile grooming, young female relatives are taken to meet despicable nun aunts, themselves victims of enforced claustration years earlier.  They meet in the neutral convent courtyard.  These cynical old nuns, both out of spite and monetary inducement from the family, use ‘every art’ to befriend their young female relatives.  Over a period they seduce them with an arsenal of lies concerning the wonderful life that ties ahead.  So deceived were these little girls that they looked happily forward to the day they would commence their wonderful new life. Elena describes these wicked old nuns ‘weaving the most fabulous yarns undreamt of by even the most gifted and famous of poets’ to conjure the convent into ‘an earthly paradise’. Apparently the bitter old nuns even went to the length of tying sweets, sugared almonds and fruits to the tree branches to foster the deception of a life in an earthly paradise lying ahead.

Greed of family and Church

Why did the fathers do this?  Prof Sperling of Hampshire college USA has studied numerous contemporary court cases.  She confirms just ‘how greedy a nun’s relatives could be ... Most often a brother profited from a sister’s enforced monachization.  This was part of a strategy to pass estates down through the male line which harmed widows, spinsters and sisters’.  In the short term it protected the heredity purity of the aristocracy, but eventually the lack off offspring became critical.  The Venetian elite could no longer service all the governmental posts in the Republic which had been built upon purity of blood line.  Finally in 1648 the Republic had to admit rich outsiders to the governing class destroying the whole edifice at a stroke.  Venice, because of its unique status, is the grossest example of something which happened to some extent across the whole of Counter Reformation Europe.

So where does the Church of Rome fit into this?  Clearly Rome gained immense wealth from these blood money dowries as the greedy Romanist aristocracy of Europe willingly paid to keep its blood lines pure and safeguard the future of its family lines.  No one demurred at forcibly incarcerating women totally against their will.  The gratitude of the Romanist rich in turn ensured their support for Rome’s expansion and co‑operation in opposing Protestantism. Rome was in effect supplying prisons for unwanted family members in a context where a cloak of respectability could be given to the vilest of practices.  There is a correlation between the concentration of Counter Reformation convents in an area and the success of Rome in stemming the Protestant advance.

Rome wants power

But what is the link between the Consilium emendenda and this iniquitous incarceration of women?  The Church of Rome is shown in the Book of Revelation as a woman riding, with varying degrees of difficulty, the European political beast.  Rome is not just interested in money.  She is interested in power.  The real force that maintained the sheer hellishness of the hell that Elena and many thousands of similar women had to endure, owed more to Rome’s ambition to rise all powerful again from the devastation wrought by the Reformation than to the desire to tap into the wealth of the nun’s families.  Never again were Protestants across Europe, who were committed to marrying, rearing children in the sight of God and making their communities prosper through hard work, going to openly mock the degeneracy of Rome’s virgins.

The revelations of the Consilium were the seed from which grew a severe Counter Reformation austerity, only much later to be circumvented by the Jesuits.  It was this climate of hypocritical morality which goaded Pope Pius V (the excommunicator of Elizabeth I ) to enforce the Council of Trent’s dour measures against the weak and indefensible generally and against nuns in particular.

Hard business decisions

Celibacy, defensible only by twisting Scripture and in reality impossible to follow, had resulted in the basest scandals which in turn had ushered in the Reformation. The Reformation was now threatening Rome’s very existence.  Like any Board of Directors, the Papal curia, having commissioned a report to devise strategies to save their business, were facing some hard decisions.  Amazingly the Consilum's authors actually considered dropping celibacy for all monks in orders and totally for women.  This was top secret at the time.  The suggestion came from respected intellectuals like Erasmus who took the view that Rome should smartly jettison celibacy as being more trouble than it was worth.  Erasmus, we recall, had early espoused the Reformation but later remained in the pale of Rome.  He wrote acidly against celibacy in his works Encomium matrimonii 1518 and later Institutio christiani martrimonii 1526 in which he elevates the married state above virginity.

A hell for all to see

The Consilium’s authors realised that if things did not change, the papacy would be swept away.  So if celibacy was to continue Rome must be in entire control both of the institutions and the lives of those in them.  Monasteries and convents must be squeaky clean.  That is of course impossible.  But defenceless, imprisoned women, coerced into celibacy by heartless Romanist families, could be put into a hell for all to see and a hell so dreadful that no Protestant could question its austerity and by implication its purity.

And if achieving this public hell meant all out war with the aristocratic families of Europe, from whose ranks these pitiful girls came, so be it.  No matter if such powerful families might wish some small control and a little amelioration of dire harshness in exchange for the huge dowries they were paying to get there womenfolk imprisoned.  Power mattered even more than money and Rome had to get power.

We shall see the abominable results in Part 2, DV.

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