This essay examines suicidal behaviors in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Catholic convents in light of the new attitudes toward voluntary death emerging across Europe between 1500 and 1700. Focusing on Italy, which housed the greatest number of enclosed religious women on the Continent, the essay probes the causal links between mental anguish, suicide, and forced professions. Despite challenges in quantifying convent suicide cases, it is clear that suicidal behaviors were not uncommon in Italian convents. Much was at stake from both a social and salvific standpoint when a “bride of Christ” killed herself or threatened to do so. Such willful deaths not only contravened basic religious precepts but also reneged on the promise to sacrifice oneself continuously for God, city, and family. Motivations for self-harm ranged from deep despair with convent life to madness and demonic possession, all of which were expressed in similar ways. Nuns also used suicide threats instrumentally to further their claims as spiritual aspirants singled out by the devil. Enlarging the scope of inquiry beyond Protestant Europe, the essay demonstrates the constitutive role Catholic nuns played in constructing new understandings of suicide in the early modern period.
Research Article|January 01 2015
Sharon T. Strocchia; Women on the Edge: Madness, Possession, and Suicide in Early Modern Convents. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 1 January 2015; 45 (1): 53–77. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10829636-2830016
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