Sep 15, 2011

Lesbian Nuns: Still Immodest After All These Years

Great review from Religious Dispatches on the landmark historical study, Immodest Acts:The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. It is considered a landmark study precisely because of "the extent to which it was part of the recovery of the lesbian and gay past."

  • Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy
  • Judith C. Brown
  • Oxford University Press (1986)
In 1986, Judith C. Brown published a book about Renaissance Italy called Immodest Acts. It was reviewed in the New York Times, The Nation, and the San Francisco Chronicle, not to mention many scholarly venues. Why? Perhaps because the subtitle of the book was The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.

The notion of the lesbian nun was not a new one. Denis Diderot’s 18th-century anti-Catholic piece entitled La Religieuse (The Nun) certainly portrayed what we might see as lesbian activity on the part of nuns. And, just a year prior to the publication of Immodest Acts, Naiad Press published Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan’s influential and controversial collection of pieces entitled, yes, Lesbian Nuns (in that case, subtitled Breaking Silence).

That the apparent oxymoron “lesbian nun” was of crucial public interest is evident in the subsequent publication of portions of the Curb and Manahan book in Ms. magazine. That the topic had a salacious history is evident both in Diderot’s frequently republished classic and in the fact that portions of the Curb and Manahan collection were also subsequently published in the men’s magazine Forum.

Though it served a role as a prop in a film entitled Damned if You Don’t as early as 1987, Immodest Acts is neither anti-Catholic, a work of contemporary advocacy, nor of salacious interest. Rather, Immodest Acts was (and is) a work of history that has itself taken a place in the history of both lesbian and gay scholarship and in the wider social changes of the past several decades. Immodest Acts is based on archival material Brown discovered in the State Archive of Florence while in pursuit of other historical questions. It reads the life of Benedetta Carlini, the trials she underwent between 1619 and 1623 and her roles as able convent administrator and for some time Abbess of the Convent of the Mother of God, recipient of visions and stigmata (or not), and as a person with a complex erotic entanglement with another nun.

Read the rest of the review here.