"The Burdens Of Sister Margaret: Private Lives In A Seventeenth Century Convent," by Craig Hatline (Doubleday, 359 pp., $24, hardcover). Reviewed by Keyin A. Miller, executive editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY magazine.
A congregation is in turmoil. A beloved spiritual leader has been accused of sexual harassment. Objects are disappearing—by theft? A female member attempts suicide; many think she is in league with demons.
Is this a scene from a far-fetched Christian novel? No, it all took place in one seventeenth-century Franciscan convent. If you thought nunneries were merely sleepy havens of sanctity, Craig Harline's new social history of Bethlehem, a small and poor convent in Leuven (in today's Belgium), proves otherwise. Harvard historian Steven Ozment notes that The Burdens of Sister Margaret "portrays the early modern cloister as it really was: mysterious, passionate, and dangerous."
Five years ago, while digging through a long-disordered archive in Belgium, Harline discovered a thick bundle of yellow, disintegrating documents three centuries old. To his surprise, he found not tedious official reports but dozens of personal, revealing letters from Margaret Smulders, a "Grey Sister," or third-order Franciscan, in the early 1600s. Her "marginless, pleading, and rambling" letters reveal the agony of a woman caught up in controversy. Twice she would be exiled from her community of 15 or 20 sisters; these letters explain why.
For one thing, Sister Margaret is outspoken. She writes that the Mother of the house is "very bossy, hard, sarcastic," unashamedly plays favorites, and "talks alone with [work]men" for an hour at a time. Worse, Margaret is troubled by loud noises and by objects being flung to the floor while she sleeps—clear signs of demons. Margaret has been troubled since Henri, her male confessor, began to show "carnal affection" toward her.
Many social histories get snarled in reams of census data, as if counting heads would help us get inside one. But Harline's graceful writing allows the women and men in this religious community to breathe, gossip, pray with tears, eat noon meals of soup and an egg. We begin to sense what it was like to be a nun when the profession was central to every town. In Sister Margaret's Leuven, a small city of 10,000 people, a full 1,000 lived in monasteries or convents. We also feel the terror of being a woman when thousands were accused of witchcraft, and 90 percent of those burned were female.
For Protestant evangelicals, the book offers a fascinating glimpse into the side of the Reformation we hear little about—the Catholic side. Oh, texts mention Ignatius Loyola and the Council of Trent, but silent are the voices of ordinary people who continued in the church of their birth, praying, thinking, fighting for or against reform. At age 23, of her own will, Sister Margaret chose to enter a conservative convent so as "better to serve God," and once there she spoke out against "slovenliness" in worship services, laziness in work, and worldliness in speech.
G. K. Chesterton once complained that few historians "have tried to imagine what it must really have been like to see those things as fresh which we see as familiar?' Though only one slice of life from the Age of Reform, The Burdens of Sister Margaret helps us see the familiar Reformation in a fresh way, to feel the agony after Christendom has cracked apart and each remaining fragment fights for adherents and its own style of reform.
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