Criminal Nuns

Criminal Nuns
    • Aphra Behn

    Lorem Ipsum

    Sacred vows are meant to be kept, honored and cherished, but once a vow is broken and trust betrayed that nun is no longer considered a nun but a criminal...



    Sacred vows are meant to be kept, honored and cherished, but once a vow is broken and trust betrayed that nun is no longer considered a nun but a criminal. In the 17th and 18th centuries, English Catholic women especially nuns were considered virtuous, obedient, and very religious. These rules of the nun being virtuous and following the rules is depicted in Aphra Behn’s story called  The History of the Nun, “Of all the sins incident to Human Nature, there is none, of which Heaven took so particular, and frequent notice, and revenge, as on that of violated vows” (1).

    Nuns were not meant to be selfish because instead of caring about their own wants and needs they were supposed to serve God and do good things for others instead. According to some Anti-Catholic texts, Nuns were supposed to obey the orders given to them by their priests without asking questions because that is what they signed up for when they took their vows to become nuns. As it is shown in these Anti-Catholic stories, strict parents and strict religious leaders also felt that once a girl decided to be a nun she was stuck there for the rest of her life. These texts explain that the fact that most girls who were becoming nuns did not choose to be nuns but were forced to be nuns by their parents explains why most of these girls ended up becoming criminals.

    Some nuns were portrayed to live in convents that were similar to prisons and their only way out was to escape on their own, willing to deal with the consequences if they were caught, and many were, such as the sisters Narcissa and Louisa in Interesting Anecdotes, Memoirs, Allegories, Essays and Poetical Fragments Tending to Amuse the Fancy and Inculcate Morality . Some nuns fell in love and broke their vows by being with men and eventually secretly marrying them. Nuns also struggled with doing the right thing yet representing what a woman should be like. Different Anti-Catholic excerpts that show how nuns became criminals are to follow with the stories written about each of their crimes below.

                 Anti-Catholic Stories That Portrayed Nuns As Criminals

    Nuns and Marriage

    According to these sensational narratives, most of the young girls that became nuns were usually forced to become nuns by their parents. These women were put in the convents for one of two reasons, either because the parents could not find husbands for them or because they were so poor they had nothing to give their daughters. They were sent to these convents very young and the only way out was when they died. Due to this there were many scandalous events happening that caused for the nuns to break the rules and become criminals.

     In one of the stories written called A letter from a gentleman at Mahon, to – giving an account of the escape and marriage of three nuns of the order of St. Clare the crime that is being committed is that two nuns fall in love with two knights that went to their convent and conversed with them. The two nuns fall in love and decide that their knights have to rescue them from the convent they live in. In order for them to get out they had to trick the nun who locks their doors before they went to bed and to do that they made a fake key and gave it to her. Not only did these nuns already commit a crime by falling in love and breaking a vow but they also committed a crime by making a false key to the garden door and stealing the real one. Another problem that happened in this story is that they recruited a new nun who wanted to get out of the convent. This caused another problem because they caused for more nuns to break the rules. In the end the nuns end up getting married but no priest under the Catholic religion wants to do it for them, therefore they decide to be married under the Protestant religion. Nobody but the protestant priest condones this and it only leaves the nuns back at the convent angry and the nuns that escaped wanted criminals.                                                                                                                                                    


    • Broke their vow to God when they fell in love with the knights.
    • Committed a crime by escaping from the convent to  statelibqld_1_108360_st-_marys_convent_school_warwick_1933     Convent


                                                                         18th century Nun

    Sinful Letters

    Another crime that nuns tended to commit in written stories was secretly writing letters to men they had fallen in love with. A text in literature that describes this kind of story is that of Letters of Aberald and Eloisa. In this text the two lovers constantly write letters to one another even though they know that they cannot be together and even though they have been separated by the convent. At one point Heloise talks about how Aberald has such power over her that no matter how much she wants to stop loving him she cannot stop the feelings she has for him. Throughout the letters they also talk about how they have been engaged before and that is a bad thing because now Heloise is a nun and she should not have been with a man.

    Quotes from letters:

    “When we have once drank of the cup of sinners, is it with such difficulty that we take the chalice of saints?” (Abelard 123).

    “Though I have lost my lover, I still preserve my love. O Vows! O Convent! I have not lost my humanity under your inexorable discipline!” (Abelard 125)

    “But what excuses could I not find in you if the crime were excusable?” (Abelard 13).

     “ if I avoid the evil I cannot do the good” (Abelard 138).


    • Secretly contacting a man while in the convent


                                                                      Love letters example

    An Engagement That Broke All the Rules

    A third story that describes a criminal nun in the article called “The Story of a Nun” in the article called Interesting anecdotes, memoirs, allegories, essays, and poetical fragments, tending to amuse the fancy and inculcate morality by Mr. Addison in which the narrator talks about how in the convent there was a nun that fell in love and was not sure how to go about being with her lover. The way in which this nun decided to solve her problem was by asking the bishop for approval. What was expected for her to say was “to be admitted within these sacred walls and that heaven will accept my vows of my everlasting chastity” (371). Instead this nun grabbed the hand of the man that she loved and told the bishop that she wanted him to be her husband because they were engaged. This was unacceptable but because she was already engaged with the man beforehand the priest had to grant her request to marry him.


    – Engaged while being a nun

    Family Crime

    Another way in which nuns were painted as criminals in fictional writing was by talking about how families would choose which of their daughters was to go to a convent and which one to get married. The reason why they did this was to ensure financial stability for the family. In the article titled Interesting Anecdotes, Memoirs, Allegories, Essays and Poetical Fragments Tending to Amuse the Fancy and Inculcate Morality there is a story about two sisters called Louisa and Narcissa whose family decides that Louisa should become a nun and her sister should be married. The problem is that the count they choose to marry Narcissa changes his mind and the parents decided to put both of them in the convent. “Miserable and lamenting in the prison, the sisters decided to escape from the convent” (Addison 56). These nuns decide that they would take refuge in their aunt’s house because they had a cousin who came out of the convent and lives there now. The sisters decide to go along with their plan at the end of the day when all the nuns are back in their cells. The way in which they decide to sneak out is by changing into regular dresses, climbing out the window and using a ladder to climb the fence. Unfortunately Louisa and Narcissa end up being caught and as a punishment are moved to a stricter convent and put in different cells.


    - Attempted escape

    - Disobeying Orders

    Depiction of Nuns by Others

    There were also a lot of texts that made fun of nuns and their practice. In Why are Nuns Funny,  Francis Dolan talks about how nuns were funny because they had “lots of failed attempts at chastity, mindless submission of corrupt leaders and how nuns dismissed part of Catholicism rather than feared it. She also talks about how there were many “eroticized” stories about nuns in the convent and they restricted young girls who wanted to join the convent because their parents would not allow them to join. There is a story about a woman called Mancini in which as a nun is described as “critiqued for keeping her vow of chastity as much as for breaking it” (515). What she means by this is that nuns were supposed to set an example about how women are supposed to act, yet they were not supposed to take their job of obedience too seriously. Thus because they took the obedience rule to heart they fell in love with knights and listened to their plans to escape or marry setting a bad example for other women.



    The History of the Nun

    One Non Anti-Catholic story written by Aphra Behn does not describe the convent as a horrible place for nuns to live in, instead it allows the main character, Isabella, to choose her own destiny. At the beginning of the text, Isabella decides that she wants to be a nun rather than have a man become her husband and live a life outside of the convent. However, as time goes on she falls in love with Henault and contemplates whether or not she should flee the convent. Behn writes that Henault gives Isabella advice by “consulting how and when she should escape” (26). By listening to his advice this makes Isabella’s actions criminal because she escapes from the convent and gets married without any approval from the priest or her family. Later on Isabella’s husband Henault is announced dead and an old lover Villenoys comes back, whom she ends up marrying. Later on Henault comes back to her alive and well, so at this point Isabella feels like a criminal because she is married to two people. Her decision to kill both of her husbands proclaims her a solid criminal because she has murdered two people and therefore she ends up going to jail and is executed. Her character represents what the actions of a criminal nun would look like and what is astonishing is the fact that she is guilty of one of the most serious crimes, which is murder.


                                        Execution Process

    About This Exhibit


    Biljana Simakoska

    This exhibit will demonstrate literary Anti-Catholic texts that introduce Criminal Nuns and Aphra Behn's literary text The History of the Nun which explicitly shows the crimes of a nun. It is also going to focus on what was considered criminal in the convents.






    Abelard, Peter. “Letters of Abelard and Eloisa With a particular account of their lives, amours, and misfortunes. By John Hughes, Esq. To which are added, several poems, by Mr. Pope, and other authors.” Vienna,  1794. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. VALE - Seton Hall University. 13 Dec. 2016 <>.

    Isabella Clara, Eugenia. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. N.p. Web. 10 December, 2016.

    Addison, Mr. “A collection of interesting anecdotes, memoirs, allegories, essays, and poetical fragments; tending to amuse the fancy, and inculcate morality.By Mr. Addison.” London,  1793. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. VALE - Seton Hall University. 13 Dec. 2016 <>.

    • L-. “A letter from a gentleman at Mahon, to - giving an account of the escape and marriage of three nuns of the order of St. Clare.” Edinburgh,  M.DCC.XLIX. [1749]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. VALE - Seton Hall University. 13 Dec. 2016 <>.

    Behn, Aphra. “The History of the Nun”. “Oroonoko” and Other Writings, edited by Paul

    Salzman. New York: Oxford Word’s Classics, 2009.

    Cruel and Unusual: Prisons and Prisoners. Digital Image. Google Images. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. N.p. Web. 10 December, 2016.

    Dolan, Frances E. “Why Are Nuns Funny?” Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 70, no. 4, 2007, pp. 509–535.

    Lely, Peter. Portrait of Aphra Behn. Digital image. Google Images. Yale Center for British Art, 18 Nov. 2005. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.

    Rogal, Samuel J. “Aphra Behn.” Critical Survey Of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition (2010): 1-5. Literary Reference Center. Web. 9 December, 2016.

    St. Mary’s Convent School Warwick. Digital Image.Wikimedia Commons. N.p. Web. 10 December, 2016.



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    cropped to image, recto, unframed

    Aphra Behn

    An open-and-shut case

    "The details of Aphra Behn’s birth are not known. She was born with the name Ayfara Amis, the daughter of John and Amy Amis who was baptized on July 10, 1640. Apparently, John Johnson, related to Lord Francis Willoughby of Parham, adopted the girl, although no one seems to know exactly when. Ayfara Amis (some sources spell her first name as Aphara) accompanied her adoptive parents on a journey to Suriname (later Dutch Guiana) in 1658, Willoughby having appointed Johnson to serve as deputy governor of his extensive holdings there. Unfortunately, the new deputy died on the voyage; his widow and children proceeded to Suriname and took up residence at St. John’s, one of Lord Willoughby’s plantations. Exactly how long they remained is not clear, but certainly the details surrounding the time Behn spent at St. John’s form the background for Oroonoko. Aphra Behn’s achievement as a novelist should be measured principally in terms of the modest gains made by the novel form in England during the seventeenth century. Prior to Oroonoko, the English novel lingered in the shadows of the theater. There may be some validity to the claim that The History of the Nun exists as one of the earliest examinations by a novelist into the psychology of crime and guilt. The events of the novel proceed reasonably enough at the outset but become less believable; by the conclusion, the events appear to be exceedingly unreal." (Samuel J, Rogal).