The novel is called Matrix, and is set in the 12th century in England in a run-down priory:
Cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, deemed too coarse and rough-hewn for marriage or courtly life, seventeen-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey, its nuns on the brink of starvation and beset by disease.
No doubt a mini-series beckons. ‘Equally alive to the sacred and the profane, Matrix gathers currents of violence, sensuality, and religious ecstasy….’ promises the publisher.
Nun themed film or TV dramas certainly seem to be enjoying a cultural revival. ‘Sister Doloris Van Cartier’ (first played by Whoopi Goldberg in 1992 film) is being re-incarnated for a new musical touring version of Sister Act. There’s also another TV series of the BBC ‘nun psycho-drama’ Black Narcissus – based on the 1947 novel by Rumer Godden about a mission of English Anglican nuns in India who are trying to establish a school and hospital in the old Raj palace in the Himalayas.
Again, instead of the theme of sisterly or convent piety, the plot deals with how the nuns – known as the ‘Order of The Servants of Mary’- are tempted by the uncomfortable discovery of Kama Sutra-style Indian paintings on their convent’s palace walls along with the existence of a handsome Englishman in shorts who runs the place. The 1947 Hollywood version of the film, directed by Michael Powell and starring Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh, has been described as an ‘an erotic English film about the fantasies of nuns’.
Why is it, one has to ask, that nuns or ‘Sisters’ remain one of the few communities today that it is acceptable for Hollywood or the BBC to trivialise or mock? Were these dramas, or plots, to be about, say, pious women of a Muslim or Hindu community, or the Buddhist nuns known as bhikkhunis, there would doubtless be outrage.
But when it comes to nuns, it seems they are fair game for ridicule or cultural assassination. The same attitude of contempt was shown towards Saint Teresa of Calcutta whose holy vocation amongst the poor in India became the subject of a 1995 essay by Christopher Hitchens (The Missionary Position) which ‘Mother Teresa’ was portrayed as a popular fraud.
So what has gone wrong with the way nuns are portrayed in the media? It is a lack of positive role models, or a failure of vocations? Does the ‘enclosed’ nature of most convents and nunneries throughout history mean that nuns are simply too removed from the world – at least in the public imagination – to have any relevance, or to even fight back from such prurient Hollywood-style stereotyping?
The truth about nuns today is more interesting than the fiction.
The first point to be made is that the numbers of nuns remain tiny, especially in the UK. So much so that they have little opportunity – or perhaps will – to fight against the stereotype. The statistics are depressing. According to the latest vocation figures for 2019 supplied to the Bishops Conference of England and Wales, the number of women who entered religious life last year was 19 – against 21 in 2018. The number of priests was 24 by comparison.
Only three ‘enclosed nuns’ joining religious orders in 2019; of these only one was below the age of 25. The other 16 joined as Religious Sisters. So instead of it being the Year of the Nun, the truth – in the real world – is that nun vocations are dwindling badly, especially for ‘enclosed nuns’ where it is like being back in the Dark Ages. Back in 1987, there were a total of 78 women in the UK becoming either nuns or religious sisters.
One radical solution might be to return some religious communities to being ‘co-ed’, or ‘dual house’ to use the medieval term.
It was going co-ed that helped saved universities and schools in the 20th century (women were only first awarded degrees at Oxford in 1920). When you reflect at the tragedies of such English monastic institutions as Ampleforth – now banned by the Department of Education from taking on new pupils due to ‘safeguarding concerns’ one wonders if having some Sisters or nuns around might have helped with the insular monastic culture.
Such an idea is hardly progressive. Whether the fictional English medieval abbey in Matrix is a ‘dual house’, with both nuns and monks, is uncertain – but it would certainly make the drama more interesting if the priory included both, and the notion is not entirely without historical plausibility.
A good case in point is my local Shropshire abbey, Wenlock Priory, whose second abbess was Milburga (later canonised), the daughter of Mercian king Merewalh who founded a number of monasteries. Wenlock (which turned Cluniac) used to be known as St Milburga’s Priory and is next-door to the famous Cistercian abbey of Buildwas which was well known to Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Not unlike those on many co-ed schools and university campuses today, ‘double monasteries’ had separate buildings, separate sleeping quarters and even worshipped in different parts of the church. On a recent visit in the December rain to the ruined abbey, I read how the monks’ church was located on the site of the later medieval monastery and the nuns’ church was where the parish church of Much Wenlock still stands today and where St Milburga’s bones were buried in 715. To think that over 1300 years ago, nuns and monks living side by side suggests that perhaps the Dark Ages weren’t so darkly backward after all.
Alas, we have come a long way since the Nonnenberg Abbey singing nuns of The Sound of Music. The most famous of this order of nuns (historically of noble birth) was Maria Augusta von Trapp, who became a ‘postulant’ (ie novice) in the abbey in 1924. Her life was used as the basis for the 1959 Broadway musical and later 1965 film starring Julie Andrews.
I imagine it’s only a matter of time before some Hollywood producer comes up with the idea of a revival that traduces her life, or that of her Mother Superior, Sister Virgilia Lutz, the inspiration for the Mother Abbess that stood up to the Nazis.
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