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Hello, my name is Valorie. I have a Master's Degree in History and a license to teach-- I have been both university professor and public school teacher. Currently, I am a middle school social studies teacher. I love horror movies and spooky things. Every day is Halloween. I am also a passionate book blogger.

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Book Review: 23:27 by H.L. Roberts

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Book Review: Immodest Acts- The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown

Title: Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy 
Author: Judith C. Brown 
Genre: Nonfiction - History

While perusing the scattered archival documents of a Miscellanea Medicea file housed in the State Archive of Florence, Judith C. Brown came across a series of scattered documents relating to the interrogations of one Ms. Benedetta Carlini, Abbess of the Convent of Mother of God.  Benedetta Carlini was a self-diagnosed mystic, in direct communication with Christ, in fact the very bride of Christ, and the supposed recipient of one of Heaven's highest blessings: the stigmata.  However, due to her own hubris and often abusive and inflated self-importance, the holes in Benedetta's claims began to be exposed.  Beginning in 1619, a series of investigations were undertaken by ecclesiastical authorities to prove the validity of her claims.  Eventually, not only was it proven that Benedetta Carlini had faked her mystic powers, but that she had engaged in a lesbian affair with another nun under the guise of an angelic deity, Splenditello. Brown's novel is so very valuable as a historical source because lesbianism is rarely found in historical sources.  For an early modern (and before) historian, female gender and sexual histories are complicated when found in source material due to contemporary culture and religious beliefs.  Theologians, the writings of whom are by far the most prevalent of documents and sources to be found of the early modern period, had a hard time coming to terms with lesbianism.  Many of them merely believed that no such thing could exist.  Others insisted that the lack of a penis, the only essential part in copulation, made any instance of lesbian sex not sex at all.  There were a plethora of theories about what sex was, what made sex real, and what role both women and men played in the act.  In the preface to Benedetta's story, Brown manages to sum up some of the most important theologians of and before the events of the book, and these theologian's ideas about sex.  For scholars and students of sex and sexuality, Brown's very succinct synthesis of the historical religious views surrounding sex is very useful. Yet let me say that if you are looking for an earth shattering book on early modern lesbian, you will be disappointed.  The "lesbianism" of Benedetta isn't discussed until the very last section when he undergoes her final investigation.  

Really, the book is less about a lesbian nun navigating a very restrictive and strict religious world, and more about a failed mystic who used her power to falsify miracles and lie about the personal relationship she had with Christ and various angels to elevate herself in the monastic community in which she lived.  Beyond the very small spattering of lesbian conduct, Benedetta's life is far more illustrative of a single woman's psychological need for recognition, and to be extraordinary within a community of similarity and similar sacrifice.  After all, how does one show that they are superior to their religious equals?  Show that they are chosen by God or by Christ for miracles and recognition. What I loved the most about the book, though, was the process of investigation underwent by Benedetta.  I loved reading the questions asked, and how she responded.  I loved reading about the miracles she claimed, and then further in the book how the lies behind them unraveled as her fellow sisters began to come forth with the truth.  Again, this is more the story of a woman who rises in ranks within her very small and limited monastic world, has her lies and deceits exposed, and finally falls into obscurity.  As far as microhistory goes, this book is one worth reading.

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