Religious Women, Sex, and the City. The Depiction of Religious Women in Popular Media

In 2019 The Guardian published an article with the title „Archive shows medieval nun faked her own death to escape convent“. Initially, I was surprised to find a newspaper article about medieval nuns. My surprise waned when I read that the nun escaped the convent to have sex or „to pursue the way of carnal lust“ as the article put it. Clearly, The Guardian expected readers only to be interested in the research of the historians at the University of York due to the sexual aspect of their archival find. This impression was amplified by the paper’s lack of critical engagement with the source material, a marginal note in the records of the archbishop of York. The article takes the bishop’s account of the nun’s story at face value and doesn’t mention that the bishop’s perspective was highly subjective. It also doesn’t note that visitation records generally focused on the moral corruptions in convents and sometimes exaggerated them. Sex sells. Sex by nuns sells even more. In fact it sells so well that an entire genre called nunsploitation developed. But why did this fascination with sexually active nuns emerge?

The Guardian article is far from the only example of nunsploitation in (popular) media. Nunsploitation is everywhere! For instance, in 2017 the indie film „The Little Hours“ by Jeff Baena starring Alison Brie, Dave Franco and others was released. The film is loosely based on a story from Boccaccio’s Decamerone and celebrates the sexuality of medieval nuns in an Italian convent. It depicts the nuns as ridiculously horny as well as crude and the bishop who tries to reign in the nuns is clearly “the bad guy”. Some scenes draws on a tradition of nunsploitation films which was particularly popular during the 1970s. For instance, the  lesbian sex scene between two of the main characters cites traditional tropes of nunsploitation films which originally were supposed to please the male viewers, as a kind of soft-porn. But ultimately, the film highlights the agency of these religious women who terrorize the convent’s male workers and don’t let society’s and the church’s expectations restrict them. While „The Little Hours“ has a feminist intention, other examples of nunsploitation, such as costumes of “sexy nuns” at carnival, have less so.

Trailer for The Little Hours (2017).

Our society’s fascination with sexually active nuns is caused by an unease with monastic norms, especially celibacy. Monastic norms don’t seem plausible anymore and their allure isn’t understood by most contemporaries. In present-day society, individuals strive for their self-fulfillment and the actualisation of their potential. Evidently, individualism and the renouncement of worldly desires are at odds. Obedience, i.e. the command to abstain from self-will, the ban on private property and celibacy are bitter pills to swallow for most modern people. The aim of these ideals is to come closer to God by leaving the world behind. In contrast, most modern people look for salvation in this world and want to make the most of their earthly lifes. Modern thinking becomes apparent in one scene in „The Little Hours“: While getting drunk the nuns reason that their supposed sins don’t matter because they will all die eventually. Of the monastic norms, celibacy seems to be the one that is most problematic to modern people. The Reformation’s view on celibacy has proven very influential, which can be seen for instance in the film „Zwingli. The reformer“ (2019). The film focuses on the relationship between the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) and his future wife Anna Reinhart. Not only Zwingli but also his companions are depicted struggling with the demand to be celibate. When Zwingli goes to a monastery to talk with the abbess about a possible dissolution of the community his companions and the nuns start flirting with each other and have to be told off by the abbess. Thus, the film suggests that given the opportunity the nuns would stop being celibate. At a certain point in the film, Zwingli tells his companions that lust is a natural urge and neither can nor should be repressed. In present-day society this belief that abstinence is not possible and people pretending to be celibate must be engaging in deviant sexual activities is widespread.

Trailer for the film Zwingli (2019).

Apart from the general suspicion about monastic norms, there is also a gendered dimension to society’s unease. Monastic norms seem especially provocative to many feminists who strive for the actualization of female potential by creating equal opportunities for women and men. An obedient woman restrained in her sexuality is a nightmare to present-day feminism – especially because of the old prejudice that the medieval church was particularly misogynistic and limited women’s agency. However, modern research has demonstrated that despite certain misogynistic tendencies, monasticism allowed for female opportunity and to some degree for the transgression of gender boundaries. As a consequence of these prejudices, women not adhering to monastic norms are singled out and applauded in the film “The Little Hours” and to a lesser extent in The Guardian article. Similarly, the film “Zwingli. The Reformer” downplays the opportunities of female authority monasticism offered to women. While the film depicts resistance of nuns against the dissolution of their communities it focuses on the abbess of the Fraumünster in Zürich. Katharina of Zimmern, the abbess, transferred ownership of the Fraumünster and its possessions to the city council – according to the film completely voluntarily in order to contribute to the reformation. In contrast, the motives of the historical Katharina of Zimmern are unkown. The film doesn’t show what happened to Katharina of Zimmern after she left the collegiate church. This omission is very telling as Katharina of Zimmern married a nobleman to achieve a respectable place in society again. As a wife she did have agency. Nevertheless, in matrimony she couldn’t have as many resources and sovereign rights as an abbess of a powerful community. As an abbess she had ruled in her own right.

Significantly, both the „The Little Hours“ and to a lesser extent The Guardian article misunderstand medieval sources about sexual activities in convents and don’t get their underlying cultural notions. Since both ignore the medieval cultural context, they only engage with modern gender roles and have less to say about actual medieval nuns. In modernity women were and still often are seen as having less of a sexual appetite than men but in the Middle Ages they were rather understood as struggling more in controlling their sexual urges and being potential seductresses of men. During one scene of „The Little Hours“ a facsimile manuscript of the „Roman de la rose“ is shown where nuns harvest penises from a tree (see the image below). Showing this illumination alludes to the fact that medieval sources could be full of obscenities. However, depictions of nuns as sexually active in medieval sources were often not innocent but politically loaded. Bishops complaining about sexually active nuns perpetuated stereotypes of women which were sometimes used to limit the agency of religious women, e.g. to reform communities. By depicting the nuns as horny, violent and swearing, the film „The Little Hours“ only reverses modern gender roles and subverts modern expectations of female behaviour. The nuns behave as we – but not a medieval audience – would expect a man to act. That way, „The Little Hours“ relies on a typical trope in popular films of the last few years like „Bridesmaids“ (2011), „Bad Moms“ (2016) and „Rough Night“ (2017).

Medieval Manuscript Le Roman de la Rose (Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun),(1200?-1260?), Bibliotheque nationale, Paris BnF ms. fr. 25526, 106v.

The unease with and misunderstanding of monastic norms is not only shared by feminists. Voluntary celibacy is perceived as containing a threat against the value present-day society places in sex. Many adults in present-day society seem to tie their notion of self-worth to their sex life. However, the nunsploitation genre is deeply gendered. The focus of the genre is on nuns performing sexual activities whereas it sometimes relies on the character of a sadistic priest engaging in sexual violence. Crucially, there is thus a gendered dimension to the threat voluntary celibacy poses. By covering their hair and wearing plain, unflattering clothes nuns defy present-day society’s expectations of female beauty and the male gaze. Being a nun counteracts society’s pretension that all female bodies have to be sexually available for men, at least in theory, and are rated according to their “fuckability”. When nuns are imagined acting hyper-sexually these gender roles are reinforced and the nun’s decision on abstinence is negated. Thus, sexualizing nuns is to some extent an imagined act of violence against their bodily autonomy as it desperately tries to make the unavailable available. Indeed, nunsploitation films often rely on coercion as a plot device. Interestingly, this gendered dimension is disrupted in the film „The Little Hours“ because only the female characters use sexual violence against the male, handsome gardener and force him to engage in sexual intercourse.

Despite their presentist view on medieval sources, popular depictions of religious women make one good point. Interestingly, in contrast to popular media, scholars often try to prove that religious women who were once seen as deficient in their duties did act according to religious norms. For instance, this can be observed regarding the research of collegiate churches, the subject of my dissertation project. Due to their freer lifestyle, including owning private property, private housing and holidays, collegiate churches have long been seen as religiously inadequate communities. Though this view is highly problematic, the source material of my dissertation project does mention religious women who became pregnant or who neglected their spiritual duties by leaving the collegiate church for a protracted period. These women might not have been the majority, but they definitively existed. As Sarah Rees Jones put it in The Guardian: Not everyone was suited for a (particular) religious lifestyle. Therefore, these women should be grasped not simply as deficient but in a scientifically more complex way, like Milena Svec Goetschi did in her dissertation about apostasy and monastic mobility.

Where does the city come into this? The Guardian article mentions that one nun in the County of York left her convent in 1301 to go to a nearby market town and to live together with a man. While the article doesn’t go into any details regarding this aspect, urbanity is often part of narratives about sexually active nuns. „The Little Hours“ uses a contrast between the monastery and the city to further elaborate on the former’s presumed deficiencies. The monastery of „The Little Hours“ is located in the countryside and very much depicted as rural. Monastic life is characterised as dull and frugal, marked by prayers, manual labour and simple food. Cities however are alluded to as economically and politically important forces several times. In contrast to the monastery, the city is presented as a place where people are rich and engage in a lavish lifestyle. For instance, one protagonist mentions that the citizens surely will appreciate the nuns’ intricate and elaborate needlework which they aren’t allowed to use themselves. One of the nuns is a merchant’s daughter who hopes to escape the boredom and monotony of the monastery by marrying another merchant and going back to the city. Furthermore, travelling to the cities’ market is a means to escape the social control of the monastery. The priest responsible for the nun’s pastoral care uses his trips to the city to get drunk without anybody noticing.

Urban lifestyle is not only opposed to monasticism but also to noble behaviour. One of the protagonists is a lord of a nearby castle who is prone to extreme forms of violence and sexualising children. After having neglected his wife for a long time and having discovered her adultery, he punishes her by immurement, plans to torture her lover and marries a child-bride. In contrast, the merchant, i.e. one of the nun’s father, is characterized as civilized, refined and affectionate with his daughter. He is concerned for the well-being of his daughter, visits her constantly and pays the monastery to make her life as bearable as possible. Although the merchant ultimately puts his own desire to appear as a religious benefactor before his daughter’s wish to leave the monastery he doesn’t do so lightly. Due to recent financial troubles he can‘t afford another dowry. The contrasting representation of the nobility and the merchants echoes Norbert Elias’ theory in „Die höfische Gesellschaft“. Elias misrepresented the Middle Ages and especially its nobility as a structurally violent group that slowly became civilized during the early modern period. Whereas Elias constructed the court as a place of civilization, the film locates it in the city.

A similar narrative underlies the manner how the city council of Zürich is depicted in the film „Zwingli. The Reformer“. Comparable to the „Little Hours“ the film contrasts two social groups, namely the canons of the Großmünster church in Zürich and the city council of Zürich regarding their reaction to Zwingli’s ideas. By doing this the film shows bias in favour of the Reformation. The canons are only interested in the citizens’ money and want to keep them ignorant. Selling of indulgences is shown as similar to racketeering and the canons as indifferent to poverty in the city. However, the city council’s support for Zwingli is portrayed as a result of listening to reason and adopting the Reformation principles in order to govern the city better. For instance, in the film the city council uses the dissolved monasteries’ money to ease the poverty of the citizens and to care for orphaned children. Thus, the film gives the impression that religious institutions before the Reformation didn’t organize poor relief (which is historically incorrect). Although the city council’s decision to sentence one of Zürich’s Anabaptists to death is characterized as morally wrong, the film has some sympathy for it. Significantly, the film ends with a sermon on freedom in Zürich which has been achieved by the Reformation. Both the „Little Hours“ and „Zwingli. The Reformer“ tap into the narrative of the city as especially progressive. Medieval urbanity is often seen as a harbinger of modernity, a better and more equal lifestyle, a rational government and democracy. Hence, the city is imagined as a place where women lived better and freer lives. Accordingly, in the city religious women supposedly could escape the restraints of the monasticism and be free of the demand to be celibate.

Stories of sexually active nuns intrigue a modern audience. Our fascination with these women have much to say about our values and self-fashioning – either feminism, our modern preoccupation with self-actualization or a feeling of entitlement to women’s bodies. Whereas it is not artistically problematic to subvert medieval sources by a feminist re-imagination, popular media’s perspective on religious women is one-sided. By refusing to take monastic norms, especially celibacy, seriously popular media often erases that religious women had agency – sometimes more so than married women. Similarly, imagining the city through the lens of modernisation theory obstructs our view and perpetuates the narrative of the “dark Middle Ages”. However, the narrative of the dark Middle Ages doesn’t do anything other than to make us feel good about ourselves. A more nuanced portrayal of religious women (either in the countryside or the city) in popular media could contribute to reflections on present-day norms.

— Simone Wagner

Simone Wagner is a doctoral research in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”. She specialises in late medieval religious history, especially that of southern Germany.


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