Nuns and the Forgery of Their Accounts

By Isabel Harvey, 18/06/2020

Protagonists: Nuns from the eight poorest monasteries of Perugia. 

Sources: Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Congregazione dei Vescovi e Regolari, Positiones, 1605, Lett. M-P. Perugia, Tutti i monasteri. (See the sources here)

Clement VIII (1592–1605) marked his pontificate by enacting reform measures according to the Tridentine decrees, especially regarding the finances of the Church. These reforms also targeted women’s convents. In fact, it was only under Clement VIII that the decree De regularibus et monialibus, adopted in 1563 during the twenty-fifth and last session of the Council of Trent, became an imperative in the dioceses of the Pontifical States. The Tridentine decree addressed the accusations of Martin Luther and his followers about the dissolute life of the regular clergy who took advantage of social and religious spaces as well as the economy of the sixteenth century. The solution adopted in Trent was largely an economic reform: Chapter Two of the decree reminded the regular orders about their vow of poverty; Chapter Three obliged all monasteries to own property from which they could draw rental income in order to eradicate the need for mendicancy; and Chapter 16 prohibited the acceptance of novices – and their dowries! – before they were of age to enter the convent.

Therefore, beginning in 1599–1600, Clement VIII, assisted by the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, started a wide-scale undertaking of reform and consolidation of the finances of women’s monastic communities. Because their land and real estate holdings were far from sufficient to feed all the nuns and support the proper daily life of the convents, the nuns had created a system allowing them to compensate for their low incomes; but this system quickly became a vicious circle. The nuns were accustomed to accept their recruits several years before they were old enough to take their vows at 16 years old. The convent received the dowry at the time of the agreement and it as often used immediately to buy food instead of being invested in a property that could bring a stable income for the future without damaging the initial capital. Later, nuns found themselves in the position of having to accept a girl without sufficient means to feed her. To overcome this problem, convents had a secondary solution: to accept supernumerary girls. The number of nuns per convent was fixed by papal decree, but it was possible to take in more girls if they paid a double dowry. This provision helped to relieve debts permanently, as half of the dowry was used to repay debts while the other half could be invested in stable properties. But it became so widely used that monasteries often counted double, or even triple, residents. Consequently, overpopulation was chronic, as in Perugia’s female monasteries.

So, towards the end of the sixteenth century, the financial situation of most women’s monastic community was critical: the convents of the Papal States were increasingly entangled in debt and overpopulation. The situation was further aggravated by a series of disastrous harvests that reduce the profitability of their patrimony. On 1 May 1592, the Bishop of Perugia summed up the situation of the women’s monasteries of his diocese as follows: “having consumed all the alms that they got for the whole year by the ordinary distribution, they remain without any allocation or credit to be able to maintain themselves.”(1) This difficult spring in Perugia was not a unique situation. The secular and ecclesiastical authorities in the cities were aware of difficult financial situation of convents and had sought over the years to diminish the deficits as best they can by putting in place emergency solutions. For example, in 1574 in Perugia, confraternities were forced to give help to the eight poorest convents of the city. The idea was to give sporadic help to the nuns, for a few years, until their numbers were reduced. But a generation later, in 1600, the situation only got worse, and the confraternities are still obliged to pay a contribution to the convents every year.(2)

In Perugia, the economic reform began in December 1599, at the monastery of Santa Maria delle Povere, when the bishop abruptly refused to give the veil to two new recruits, who had already paid their dowries: “which he says, having claimed the command of Your Most Illustrious Lord, in forbidding that no mendicant monastery can accept girls.”(3) The principle behind this reform was simple: to reduce the number of nuns in every monastery, so that the rents provided by their patrimony became sufficient to meet their needs. But with the ban on accepting new girls, the situation was catastrophic: nuns would have to repay dowries that had already been spent. 

In moments of panic and incomprehension, some nuns did not hesitate to go beyond the limits of acceptability or legality in seeking a survival strategy during this process of reform. This was the case with several convents in Perugia that chose to manipulate their accounts. In 1601, at the request of the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, the Bishop of Perugia obliged all convents to provide the episcopal see with the details of their accounts, stating their patrimony and the annuities they produced each year, other revenues in money or goods, debts to repaid, and the expenses necessary for the everyday life, according to the number of nuns. The abbesses took this step without fully understanding the logic behind the economic reform, but “thinking that they should arrange it to their best interest.”(4) Consequently, many convents voluntarily provided erroneous figures. This was what the Episcopal administration of Perugia discovered in 1605: in 1601, the nuns of several convents had voluntarily reduced their income, so as to force the confraternities to give them subsidies: “in the book of the incomes of nuns’ monasteries of Perugia, sent to this sacred Congregation in the year 1601, there is an important error, caused by the nuns who did not give the right numbers.”(5) However, the consequence of such falsification was the opposite of what nuns were looking for: new recruits were completely blocked in order to reduce the number of convents’ inhabitants. The nuns had not foreseen such a consequence: they thought that the previous solutions would be reactivated and that they would obtain financial help from the confraternities. But the ecclesiastical authorities were rigid, symbolizing the new economic discipline that Clement VIII chose to impose on the monasteries of his lands.

(1) Vatican Apostolic Archive (ASV), Congregation of Bishops and Regulars (CVR), Positiones (POS), 1592, Lett. M-P. Perugia, 1 May 1592. “havendo consumati tutti quell’elemosine, che per ordinaria distributione gli toccavano per tutto l’anno, restano senza alcuno assignamento, e credito da potersi mantenere

(2) ASV, CVR, POS, 1600, Lett. M-P. Perugia, 26 January 1600.

(3) ASV, CVR, POS, 1600, Lett. M-P. Perugia, Convent of Santa Maria delle Povere. 17 December 1599. “il quale dice, haver havuto ordine dalle Signorie Vostre Illustrissime e prohibitione, che nessuno Monasterio mendicante accettar zitelle.

(4) ASV, CVR, POS, 1605, Lett. M-P. Perugia. “pensando di fare le conditioni loro migliori

(5) ASV, CVR, POS, 1605, Lett. M-P. Perugia. “Perche nella notola dell’intrate de’ Monasterij di Monache di Perugia, mandata à cotesta sacra Congregazione l’anno 1601, si pretende siano errore di molta consideratione, cagionati massime dalle Monache istesse, le quali non ne diedero la giusta assegna”

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