‘Why are nuns funny?’ or how the habit does not make the nun.

Why are nuns funny?’ or how the habit does not make the nun.
A study of how making fun of nuns eventually unveiled their power of action.

For their assignment, MA students Manon Martin and Gabrielle Mota had to read and reflect upon Frances E. Dolan’s seminal article ‘Why Are Nuns Funny? Huntington Library Quarterly 70.4 (2007); 509-535. Here is their personal interpretation of some of the most salient traits of the article. 

An examination of how the Early Modern English Nuns were mocked and sexualized, which ironically led to their empowerment in their daily and spiritual life.

‘Why are nuns funny?’ is an article written in 2007 by Professor Frances Dolan, whose research focuses on early modern English literature, law and history. In her article, Dolan argues that making fun of nuns for their ‘fantasies’ or marginality was in fact a way for men to maintain a status quo regarding gender relations and thus had consequences not only on the nuns, but also on women in general. Representations of nuns also served as a gateway towards a criticism of their Catholicism. Indeed, after the Reformation, Catholics had to either convert to Protestantism or remain Catholic in secret, which led many women to flee England and go to the Continent, to start a new life as enclosed, exiled nuns or for other women, to become part of the recusants, that is to stay in England and participate in the sheltering of Catholic seminary priests, as well as Jesuits. Anti-Catholicism was in full swing, and many pamphlets or books made fun of nuns and caricatured them for being both women and Catholics. For this blog post, we chose to focus on how men in caricaturing nuns actually tried to control women’s bodies as ‘the cloister made literal and architectural symbolism for describing the female body and the technologies necessary to protect its vulnerable apertures’ (Dolan 2007, 516), but also how it actually, ironically, empowered women more than it discredited them.

What Professor Dolan demonstrates in her article is how making fun of nuns used laughter as a stranglehold on female bodies. Indeed, it started with the idea of enclosure: ‘walls and doors’, ‘locks and keys’, all of these elements representing a form of secrecy as well as a physical obstacle which made it impossible for men to remain in control of nuns’ bodies, as they could not enter convents. Garthine Walker, in her article Rereading Rape and Sexual Violence in Early Modern England, also argued that ‘locks and keys constituted common metaphors for sex in various kinds of early modern narrative’ (Dolan 2007,517): nuns, who supposedly entered the convent by making a vow of chastity, were in fact vow-breakers and convents allowed for more sexual license than the secular world, whether it be with priests or between nuns themselves. Paradoxically, they used the supposedly sexual aspect of what was happening inside convents to control nuns, lock them in and explain their desire to be enclosed: ‘At least the insistence on nuns as women of pleasure concedes that whatever is happening inside convents is of interest to the nuns; nuns want to be there.’ (Dolan 2007, 513). In these narratives, nuns were mocked for their willingness to remain chaste and became more human when they broke their vows as Dolan states: ‘The nun who succumb to her libido, with other nuns or priests, is laughably but reassuringly human’ (Dolan 2007, 515). Actually, nuns were made to be funny because they thought that by accepting the vow of chastity, they would break from nature which is something impossible, and therefore the nuns became grotesque and so laughable: ‘Thus nuns are also just that little bit funnier because they are women who propose to discipline the bod’ (Dolan 2007, 517). Nuns’ sexuality was at the centre of the laughter and especially their supposedly inability to remain chaste. Priests exercised a control over the nuns which appeared similar to the one of the husband in a marriage, thus questioning which kind of ‘entrapment’ was preferable.

Cover of Venus in the Cloister by L’Abbé Duprat (1683) where he depicts nuns having sexual intercourse with priests and being idle. Found in:

The article also questioned the institution of marriage: was marriage preferable to the enclosed convents considered as ‘Cabinet of Wickedness’ (The Adamite, or the Loves of Father Rock and His Intrigues with the Nuns 1683)? Some early modern writers such as Margaret Cavendish, emphasized that ‘unsympathetic’ marriages were less preferable than life in a cloister: ‘Marriage is a very Unhappy Life when Sympathy Joyns not the Married Couple, for otherwise it were better to be Barr’dup within the Gates of a Monastery, than to be Bound in the Bonds of Matrimony.’ It appeared that the patriarchal authority in a marriage, was sometimes so important that it was the same as being in a convent, not being able to see the outside world, and some women thought it would be better to be enclosed without a dominant male authority. However, male authority was also to be found in the convent. Indeed, anti-Catholic authors insisted on the nuns’ ‘passivity’ (Dolan 2007, 526). Nuns, as women, were considered inferior and gullible and so, they were seen as following the orders of priests without questioning them, being blindly obedient. It led to comic situations as Professor Dolan states: ‘Ballads about bawdy priests show them reassuring the nuns they confess that sex is not much of a sin, and besides they can always forgive it afterward, so why worry ?’ (Dolan 2007, 526), or, ‘These nuns routinely have sex but not because they want to; they do it because they have been told to and they are incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, or desire from duty’ (Dolan 2007, 528). Overall both in marriage and in the convent, there was a male authority above that controlled and manipulated the female body and desire, and the nun or the wife was subjected to this power. As in marriage, vows of obedience and chastity were taken by nuns yet, in anti-catholic representation of nuns, they are seen as doing whatever the priests or confessors asked them without questioning the meaning of these vows thus making Catholic practices phoney. The enclosure of nuns as a means of control over their bodies, did not prevent the very pornographic and sexual innuendoes, but actually served a broader purpose. Indeed, nuns were only an allegory for women in general, the subalterns, those who did not have a word in society’s organization and ruling and yet, some of them were the most fervent helpers in the quest of missionaries against Protestantism. To allow for the hierarchy to stay stable and prevent change, men ridiculed nuns and therefore women, so as to reassure themselves: ‘These texts insist that nuns are funny because women are when they are cast, as so often, in the role of the grotesque body ridiculously exposed’ (Dolan 2007, 517). As we perceived it, exiled or hidden nuns were endowed with a kind of mystical dimension, hidden in their convents, never seen and actually only known through rumours and stereotypes. Yet, using these stereotypes helped empowering nuns and women and allowed quite a lot of upheavals, led or at least arranged by women, getting these men to be fooled.

Frolicsome Friars and Naughty Nuns Both sources were found on Pinterest : https://www.pinterest.co.uk/malcm2557/frolicsome-friars-naughty-nuns/

What was very interesting in this article, was that laughing at nuns was a way for men to displace their anxieties about gender relations, since these women were enclosed and out of reach for many. That is why there were a large number of ways to make fun of nuns, as we saw earlier, to control them, when the reality was more complicated: ‘Ridicule then helps to distance the nun from other women and to manage the disturbing possibility that the normative expectations for women institutionalized through marriage and the family are just as excessive and doomed as those institutionalized through the cloister’ (Dolan 2007, 514). Men thought that nuns in cloisters went to extremes, because in reality it was not possible to control them fully when they were enclosed, while it was easier to control one’s wife. Yet both marriage and the cloister were a form of entrapment, as excessive as the other, but it was not considered as such by men, as they were not able directly to manipulate nuns. That is why they made fun of women who made a vow of chastity: they were ‘using ridicule to ward off the unsettling possibility of their success.’ (Dolan 2007, 517). It is easier to think that they will fail and that they are not resistant enough than to think that they will succeed and thus are not the weak and feeble women they were considered to be. Besides, ”such representations also suggest that nuns are not to be taken seriously.’ (Dolan 2007, 513). Again, using humour was a way to diminish the power of nuns: we know from our modern point of view that women in cloisters and from their houses in England, had an important role in the Jesuits’ mission, one of the most well-known example being Mary Ward’s Institute that formed and trained so-called ‘Jesuitesses’ who would then go back to England to work for the English catholic mission.

In the end, one can observe that it is a case of the biter bit, if we may say so. What is at stake in this ridiculing of nuns is for women to be discredited and men to stay in a position of power. Faced with the threat of Catholicism and the important boom of conversions to Catholicism, men were out, leading missions, and women, recusant women, were left at home, with the power to arrange everything and help priests in disguise to diffuse their faith. This ridiculing of nuns and of women actually resulted in empowering them and enhancing their strengths more than their weaknesses. It was quite ironical indeed to see, that these weaknesses, imposed on them by men, were actually what made their strength. Women were thus able to lead networks of hidden correspondences for instance, without no one noticing, as they were thought idle and illiterate and therefore, discredited. No one could think that ‘nunnified’ (John Gee, New Shreds of the Old Snare, 1624) women were actually not so dumb and foolish as it had been thought for centuries onwards…

Religion, christianity, religious orders, caricature on vices, of monks and nuns, Germany, 2nd half 16th century. https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-religion-christianity-religious-orders-caricature-on-vices-of-monks-58519058.html


Eventually, nuns can be perceived as ‘scapegoats’ for men and the early modern English society. As Frances Dolan explains in the last pages of her article, a nun is ‘A whipping girl for both women and Catholics, the nun offered both titillation and a safer target than the Stuart monarchs.’ (Dolan 2007, 531)

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