Dec 15 2015

The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal by Hubert Wolf

I’ll admit, I picked up the book because “ooh, sexy nuns!” But The Nuns Of Sant’Ambrogio turned out to be so much more: an intelligent examination of the Catholic Church in a turbulent period of the 19th century, with this scandal serving to illuminate the theological and political divides that have shaped the institution (and frankly, in the opinion of both the author and myself, not necessarily for the good.)

So you’ve got the beautiful Sister Maria Luisa, the surprisingly young and powerful mother vicaress of the convent of Sant’Ambrogio, founded by a woman, Maria Agnese Firrao, who was later convicted of false holiness (i.e. she claimed to be a saint but the Inquisition found otherwise.) Maria Agnese Firrao left behind a legacy of mysticism and abuse that Maria Luisa would both fall victim to and take full advantage of… and that’s ostensibly the story here, with lesbianism, and forbidden affairs between nuns and priests, and several murders thrown in for good measure. Juicy, titillating stuff.

But Hubert Wolf isn’t a mere scandal-monger. He’s a German professor and church historian who was given access to the Inquisition’s files, as well as an author with a fine eye for parallels and nuance, and more importantly a person with a deep human empathy. There are so many paths he could have taken this book down, but he chose, in my opinion, the best one: to show the corrupting influence of unquestioned power and self-delusion. No one is left off the hook as he dissects the tragedy of Sant’Ambrogio and tells us what happened to the participants after the ensuing trial. I still feel a heartbroken fury for certain of the parties involved, knowing what I do now.

I was also deeply affected by the feminism of the book. Mr Wolf doesn’t infantilize or objectivize the women or what they did, but presents them as complete human beings. Princess Katharina, the novice who sets the denunciation of the convent in motion, is clearly one of those women who are more well-meaning than practical, but Mr Wolf is never dismissive of her or her claims. Maria Luisa is pretty much the exact opposite of Katharina, and a terrible person, but I still couldn’t help feeling for her. Impoverished and expected as a child to run the household upon her mother’s death, she finds solace in the religion of a kindly woman neighbour, who encourages her to take a vow of chastity (before the age of 10! What kind of trauma would encourage a child that young to do so?) and helps her win a dowry (essentially a scholarship) to gain entry to the convent of Sant’Ambrogio. Leaving behind her actual sisters (who I got the distinct impression she didn’t care for) for an idealized sisterhood at the age of 12, she discovers… well, you’ll have to read this heartbreaker of a book to find out for yourself.

I hope I haven’t given the impression that this book is just about the convent and its inhabitants. There is an exhaustive amount of research into church history and politics, leading to some truly shocking revelations as to the theologian behind several of the important (and in some opinions divisive, if not outright questionable) dogmas adapted in the 19th century (including the ordinary magisterium and papal infallibility.) As a Muslim, I hadn’t had any idea of certain aspects of Catholic theology till this book, but Mr Wolf made it all accessible and interesting. I wouldn’t recommend this book for people who don’t have an interest in theological intrigue, but for those who do, The Nuns Of Sant’Ambrogio is pretty much the gold standard.

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