Monday, 23 April 2018

JEH 69/2: Nuns, but not as we know them

I would like to emphasise to anyone who ever has or who ever might submit an article to JEH that we apply the most rigorous and even-handed methods of blind peer review and level-headed assessment of papers on their academic merits. Any rumours to the effect that we use a form of sensationalism bingo to choose the papers that we publish are entirely and categorically untrue.

It is therefore wholly coincidental that the April number contains an article which includes Jewish converts, the Ukrainian Hetmanate, nuns who insist they need ‘meat and men’ and who hold ‘noisy drinking parties’ in their cells, the phrase ‘several bucketfuls of wine’, and a punch-up in which (depending on which account you believe) either a drunken convent servant broke into a nun’s cell, beat her up and dragged her half-clothed across the yard, or he politely reprimanded her for her violation of discipline only to be attacked by several unruly stick-wielding nuns. Liudmyla Sharipova’s article 'Of Meat, Men and Property: The Troubled Career of a Convert Nun in Eighteenth-Century Kiev' went through exactly the same process of careful review and revision as any other piece.

There is no denying, though, that she has a weird, grotesque and riveting tale to tell, and I will avoid any spoilers as to how these various elements fit together. What I will say is that the conflict that erupted around the nun and convert from Judaism named Sr Asklipiodata in Kiev in 1776 is more than just a compelling story. It is a window on a world of fluid religious identities and of monastic practices that are still scarcely known in the West, and it forces us to re-evaluate what we think we know about monasticism.

One reason her story matters is that Ukraine in the late 18th century was one of the last outposts of an old style of religious life: non-communal, or ideorrhythmic, monasticism. In this system, monks and nuns bought their own cells, which could be openly luxurious, and which could be sold on or even inherited; traded on their own account; and were entitled to a share of the community’s produce. They continued to observe a common liturgy and share a burial ground, but this was not monasticism as we think we know it.

You might think, indeed, that it was simply a form of corruption and that these communities had become in effect secular economic entities. But the pleasure of Sharipova’s article is that she lays bare the conflicts which ideorrhythmic living could produce while still having a lively, humane awareness of the genuine but of course tangled and compromised spiritual life that was led within this structure.

My apologies for sensationalising this piece. Sharipova herself resists that temptation (although to be fair, the material doesn’t need much help); and the lasting impressing the article leaves is less of a dramatic story than of an extraordinary, combative, assertive, vulnerable and unexpectedly pious woman, who had spent six tumultuous decades ploughing her own furrow and was not about to submit meekly to a newly arrived mother superior. She deserved a memorial. I am pleased that, in a small way, she now has one.

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