“Mate, I can’t accurately remember the week before last,” I said, and my friend ignored me and kept right on going. He was like that when he had a head of steam up.
“A cluster of nuns in Northern Italy. They wrote and performed beautiful music. The Church tried to stop them, but they kept going.”
“A bit like you, Roman? And I think the collective noun is a superfluity of nuns, not cluster.”
Ignored, yet again.
“Naturally, the music and singing were all religious. I guess that’s how they got away with it for so long,” said Roman. His voice dropped, and I thought he was done, but he was just thinking about something — he was far away, and then he was back.
“Lucretia Borger’s daughter was one of the composers.”
“No shit? THE Lucretia Borger?” I said, and I was getting used to being ignored.
“In the end, the Church caught up with them and the trail goes cold.”
“And how did you learn all this?” I said because I wasn’t listening when he first told me.
“A very old, handwritten book. Beautifully illustrated. Tells the whole story from the point of view of the women involved. I ran across it when I was studying in the Vatican library,” said Roman, and he trailed off again and stared into space. I got the feeling that he was back there, back then.
“So, how come this book was in the Vatican library if the Church was trying to stamp them out?”
“Better for them to lock it away than have it floating about causing trouble.”
Roman had a point, and it unsettled me. I had always thought of Roman as my slightly dotty friend, and here he was making sense.
“So why were these talented women locked away behind convent walls and not out in the world being married and making music?”
“Money,” said Roman.
“Only the eldest daughter would get married. Her dowery would be huge. The family would go broke if all the daughters got married. Convents would take the other daughters for a fraction of a marriage dowery. At that time, around a quarter of all gentile women were behind the wall.”
“That’s a lot of women,” I said, and I meant it. Nuns freak me out a bit. At least they did when I was a kid, and there were a lot of them about, back then.
“Sometimes there would be three generations of women locked away. When a baby was born into a family they would bring the child along and stick it in this kind of revolving door thing that the convent would receive supplies through. Technically, the baby would be excommunicated for going through the portal, but in reality, they weren’t. No one was supposed to touch a nun once she was received into the order. Cuddling newborn relatives seemed to be an exception to the rule. Sometimes, tiny nuns would squeeze through the revolving door and go AWOL.”
My head was starting to spin.
All this seemed so far from the world I lived in. Did women really live like this — separated from the world?
“So what was it like? Working in the Vatican library?” I said.
“Not as much fun as the Bodleian. The Vatican Library is bland and boring, but it does have a bar.”
“Yes. It’s there for the Vatican staff — greatly subsidised prices — but they will serve travelling scholars. I’d have my lunch there and go back to work in the afternoon — technically, the library closes at lunchtime, but those in the know can get a special pass and work until the early evening. It’s very quiet in the afternoon.”
“This book, with the singing nuns, how did you find it?”
“Not sure. You are only allowed three books per day and I think I must have made a mistake when I ordered it. In any case, it was the most important discovery of my time in Italy. You know, I don’t think the book had been opened since it was added to the collection some four hundred plus years ago.”
“Wow,” I said, and I could hear the pages being separated as he opened the book. The rich illustrations and the archaic language — not to mention the smell of the paper and the binding.
“You know, a bunch of nuns banded together and burnt down their convent.”
“No. I didn’t know that,” I said, “you should write a book.”
“I am. But I fear it will be read by very few and someday — maybe hundreds of years from now — someone will find it in a dusty old archive. I wonder what that person will think when they open it for the first time?”
“I’d like to read your book when it’s done, but for now, I need a drink. Care to join me?”
Roman smiled, and we headed for the pub.
As we walked, it dawned on me that my ‘dotty’ friend had seen more of the world than I had and his books took him time travelling as well.
I’m glad we kept in touch — even if he does ignore me, from time to time.