Nuns: A History of Convent Life, By Silvia Evangelisti

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The Independent Culture

Packed with engaging detail, this book explores the enduring fascination of the "brides of Christ". The appeal of the nunnery in medieval times for women who refused to accept the virtual slavery of marriage is vividly exemplified by Caterina Benincasa, a Siennese saint who died by throwing herself into boiling water so that she could "serve God".

Orders explored by Evangelisti range from the Magdelenes, for ex-prostitutes, to the "Institute of the English Ladies", which takes in Catholic refugees in Europe. Evangelisti reveals how nuns have enlivened theatre, music and art. Though the subjects are clad in black and white, the book's illustrations would have greatly benefited from colour reproduction.