Skip to main content

Freedom Behind Convent Walls

According to Associate Professor Anna-Lisa Halling, playwriting gave nuns unprecedented freedom—which may explain why it became so popular.

Image of nun standing on a balcony in a convent, reading a book and holding a rosary
Photo by Mike González via Pixels

Nuns in Iberian convents wrote enough plays that the Catholic Church threatened to excommunicate them if they didn’t stop—but they did anyway. The practice of playwriting represented one of many intellectual hobbies that nuns took up in the convents. On April 4, 2024, Associate Professor Anna-Lisa Halling (Iberian Women Writers) wrapped up the Humanities Center’s winter 2024 Colloquium Series with “‘Your Sisters’ Necessary Recreation’: Theatrical Performance in Early Modern Iberian Convents.” In her presentation, she discussed how nuns in Iberian convents explored intellectual hobbies that women couldn’t normally pursue in the 16th century.

At this time, convents served as sanctuaries for women without “honor” (meaning they had premarital relations) or economic means, but they also offered places of refuge for women who wanted to read and write, answer the call to serve in religion, or escape family persecution. Because convents were (and still are) women-centered and women-run, nuns had the space to pursue more intellectual or creative hobbies—such as writing—that they could not outside of a convent. Halling said, “It's kind of like this mini city of ladies. And there are opportunities to read and to write, to create, to perform. They’re doing needlework; they’re writing plays; they’re putting on plays.”

In examining the literature surrounding this topic, Halling found that the Catholic Church originally created convents to control women in the church and keep men in power. But in reality, convents actually gave women the chance to pursue their own interests outside of the church, a contradiction Halling pointed out. She said, “We think of the convent as a very controlled space. But what’s interesting is it also opened up a lot of opportunities for women that would not have had those kinds of opportunities otherwise.”

This desire for new opportunities may have inspired the nuns’ hobby of writing plays. While acting, women could be whatever or whoever they wanted to—a freedom not allowed outside of the convent space. Halling said, “They can be Adonis, they can be Mars, they can be anything they want to in this space, right? Because it is enclosed, because it is controlled.”

Despite threats of excommunication, Halling could not find evidence of a nun ever being excommunicated for writing plays—demonstrating either the lack of supervision convents received or the Catholic Church’s desire to avoid enacting punishments despite warnings. To this day, nuns in convents still write plays, showing that playwriting continues to be a long-standing tradition for nuns in Iberian convents rather than an aspect of the 16th century.

Check out Halling’s work on More than the Muses to see the Iberian convent plays she has uncovered.