"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 ...1
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