Habitual Offenders: A True Tale of Nuns, Prostitutes, and Murderers in Seventeenth-Century Italy

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University of Chicago Press, May 3, 2016 - History - 333 pages
In April 1644, two nuns fled Bologna's convent for reformed prostitutes, and after a perfunctory archiepiscopal investigation went nowhere, the nuns were soon forgotten. After all, why would the disappearance of two former prostitutes, apparently too socially insignificant for the pope, the Bolognese archbishop, or anyone else to fret over, trouble respectable Bolognese? By June more than a year later, however, a stench drew a wealthy woman to the wine cellar of her Bolognese townhouse, reopened after a two-year absence, and there, to her and everyone else's horror, she discovered the eerily intact, garroted corpses of the missing nuns (or convertite).This obliged the archbishop to reopen the case, and when the two main suspects turned out to be the son and the nephew of the newly crowned Pope's archrival--the fight was on. Four thousand pages of primary sources later, the intrepid Craig Monson has patiently reconstructed a fascinating micro-history of crime and punishment in seventeenth-century Bologna, one that puts faces on people "of the ordinary sort." They come from Italy's back streets and back stairs, and their words are those of lesser members of the social order, often barely audible or visible in conventional histories, and rarely encountered in historical narratives. In recreating the case of the convertite, Monson examines such issues as life strategies among prostitutes; maidservants and other marginal women; self-promoting "new men" hoping to make their way at the papal court without benefit of exalted birth; the life styles of mercenary soldiers, bandits, and other dubious figures negotiating the margins of polite society; and the fate of the two nuns, who, curiously, remain among the least known and most elusive characters of the story. With Monson's expert guidance, we may finally put faces to the least reputable, arguably the least familiar category of convent women who rarely appear in the scholarship on female monasticism, even though most seventeenth-century Italian cities and other Catholic regions in Europe of the time had their versions of convents filled with former prostitutes. For both seventeenth-century investigators and twenty-first-century true-crime readers alike, the Devil is indeed in the details, and Monson has a knack for telling a good true-crime story, revealing the twists and turns of a justice system during a time when women had very few options, legal or otherwise.

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About the author (2016)

Craig A. Monson is the Paul Tietjens Professor Emeritus of Music at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Nuns Behaving Badly and Divas in the Convent, also published by the University of Chicago Press. He lives in St. Louis.

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