The Life and Loves of a 'Portuguese Nun'

Myriam Cyr.

hide captionMyriam Cyr.

In 1669, a Paris bookseller published a dainty volume called Portuguese Letters. It was small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, but its passionate story inspired poets and painters for hundreds of years.

The identity of the writer has been the subject of much debate.

Were they penned by the French man whose name appears on the original publication?

Or were they the work of a 27-year-old Portuguese nun who had been loved — and abandoned — by a French soldier?

Author Myriam Cyr decided to examine the literary mystery. She tells Liane Hansen about Letters of a Portuguese Nun.

Excerpt: 'Letters of a Portuguese Nun'

The cover of Myriam Cyr's book.

hide captionMyriam Cyr's book follows the life of Mariana Alcoforado, a 17th century Portuguese nun.

Long before England took to the seas to build its empire, the tiny country of Portugal ruled the oceans, making it one of the most powerful nations of the Western Hemisphere.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Portugal, roughly the size of the state of Maine, dominated world trade. Its dominion extended to India, Africa, Asia, and South America. Goods flowed into Portugal from distant, inaccessible lands. The Portuguese wrote letters on scented paper drenched in saffron. Quills were dipped in ink found in remote Chinese provinces and featured feathers plucked from exotic African birds. Persian rugs purchased with South American silver hung on Portuguese walls. Gold flowed in from Asia and Africa. The Portuguese built Macao and passed the South African Cape of Good Hope before Christopher Columbus. Portugal was the first to establish trading posts in Japan. The Portuguese nation presided over the Turks, the Arabs, the Moors, and at its height, Portugal's empire was greater than that of the Romans.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, however, Portugal was spiraling downward. Spain, crossing the border, had usurped the Portuguese crown and imposed its rule. Sixty years of abusive leadership had reduced these once proud people to a chaotic collection of individuals at a loss for a sense of purpose. Universal poverty plagued the population. Disregarding laws, bands of monks flooded city streets at sundown to commit murders that went unpunished.

Highway robbers ruled the countryside, making travel unsafe. Men paraded multiple swords at their sides. Pistols, daggers, and illegal knives with diamond tips were worn as much for show as for protection. Bullfights were the nation's favorite pastime. Licentiousness was rampant. Illegitimate children were so common among the clergy, it was not unusual for priests to seek favors from government officials to help place their sons or marry off their daughters. Men wasted away their days by playing cards, dice, palm games, skittles, lawn bowling, chess, checkers, and ball games. Fidalgos, the title given to nobility, bickered amongst themselves over promotions that meant nothing. The few patricians who retained some sense of pride were pushed aside in favor of groveling upstarts.

Discontent reached new heights the day Spain, endlessly at war with the rest of Europe, started sending young Portuguese noblemen to die in Spanish wars. The unwarranted loss of life, coupled with a sudden increase in Spanish taxes, finally compelled the Fidalgos into action. Portugal rose against Spain in December 1640. On a dewy Saturday morning, the royal ancestral house of Braganza engaged in a war of independence that would last twenty-eight years.

A few months earlier, on April twenty-second, unnoticed, the christening of Mariana Alcoforado took place in the beautiful white chapel of Santa-Maria situated a few feet from her parents' home. Christenings usually occurred quickly following the birth of a child because of high infant mortality, and it is safe to assume that Mariana was born during the week preceding the ceremony.

The chapel of Santa-Maria belonged to the picturesque town of Beja situated in the lower Alentejo, Portugal's most southern province. An important agricultural center, flourishing principally on the trade of wheat and olive oil, Beja counted 3,000 residents, twenty-six churches, and seven religious institutions. Built on a hill, surrounded by olive groves, the town overlooked vast and solitary plains. Little red windmills, used to grind endless fields of wheat, punctuated an otherwise empty horizon. Because of its proximity to the Spanish border, Beja was the ideal garrison town, and Mariana would grow up surrounded by foreigners.

Mariana was the second of five daughters and three sons born to Francisco da Costa Alcoforado and Leonor Mendes. Francisco's firstborn, Ana, was destined to marry while Mariana and her sisters would enter convent life. Ana's fate was more precarious than Mariana's. Once married, Ana would be treated no better than a slave.

Portuguese Catholicism, a mixture of leftover Muslim customs, pagan beliefs, and religious devotions, was the ideal arena in which to subjugate women. Wives were deliberately kept illiterate. They wore a Catholic version of the chador in the shape of a veil that hung over their faces. They ate on the floor, sitting on mats made out of cork, while men sat at tables. Husbands barred the windows and bolted the doors of their homes. Women were forbidden from walking in streets unless they were accompanied either by their husbands, a family member, or a retinue of servants.

Men looked down on women traveling alone and pinched the calves and arms of any woman traveling by herself, often leaving the unfortunate victim severely bruised. The practice was so frequent that the Spanish had dubbed the behavior a Portuguese kindness.6 Royal edicts further sought to control women. Women found conversing on church steps were threatened with prison and deportation.

These laws attempted rather unsuccessfully to curb women and men's behavior resulting from the Portuguese passion for love. Love was at the epicenter of seventeenth century Portuguese life. Peasant women embroidered the word amor (love) on their purses, and a woman, regardless of her rank, marital status, place and time of day, stared fixedly at the man she liked to let him know he could declare himself without hesitation. A chronicler of the period, Mme. de Ratazzi, in her book Le Portugal a vol d'oiseau (A Bird's Eye View of Portugal), comments that love held such an important place in everyday life that there was little room for anything else. All conversations revolved around and had to do with love. Men, whether old, young, ugly, handsome, uneducated, scholarly, civil, or military spoke only of their female conquests. Removed from political or administrative powers by the Spanish, the Portuguese male kept busy standing below balconies serenading loved ones.

Locked-up wives found ways to take on lovers. Men used love to indulge in fights, skirmishes, and heated exchanges. Honor and pride fueled jealous behavior. Illegal duels were hailed as acts of courage, and dying of love was considered the most noble of deeds.

Nuns were not excluded from the frenzy. So many men fell in love with nuns, they became known as freiráticos (nun lovers). These spiritual and platonic relationships were considered the highest and most worthy form of love. Men failed to see the irony inherent in keeping their wives un-educated and sequestered, while, at the same time, seeking out erudite nuns over whom they had no power.

Though convents served as refuges for women seeking protection from the vagaries of war, finance was generally the greatest motivator sending daughters to a nunnery. Francisco's decision to marry off his eldest daughter, Ana, and relegate Mariana and her sisters to a convent had primarily to do with protecting his hard-won assets.

Mariana's father came from the harsh and unrelenting climate of northern Portugal beyond the mountains that divide the country. The Alcoforados were impoverished gentry and ambition pushed Francisco south to the warmer, more indulgent Alentejo, in search of opportunity. With little to offer except his name, Francisco married the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Not much is known about Mariana's mother, but according to her will, Leonor Mendes' marriage to Francisco was one of respect. She kept most of her wealth and was able to bequeath goods to her children. A shrewd businessman, Francisco prospered and by the time Mariana was eight years old, he had become an influential man with connections to the king and high-ranking officials. An elected alderman of the city of Beja, a court administrator, assessor, and tax collector, Francisco was also responsible for the transportation of wheat and the processing of flour. He managed a stud farm, had recently been appointed judge, and to his great pride, he had been awarded the mantle of Knight of the Order of Christ.

Francisco fathered a son before marrying, but this did not hinder his reputation. Francisco placed this son, Jose, in the priesthood, and the relationship must have been cordial because Jose christened the last of Francisco's eight legitimate children.

To prevent his land from being fragmented at his death, Francisco married off Ana, his eldest, and willed the entirety of his assets to his firstborn legal heir, Balthazar, born five years after Mariana. He placed his remaining daughters into a convent, and destined his other sons for religious or military service. A common practice, this prevented estates from being divided between offspring, but Francisco was so intent in protecting the family name he added strange clauses to his testament dated September 30, 1660; the heir would lose his succession rights if he failed to abide by any one of them.

- The heir was responsible for increasing the estate a third of its third.

- If the successor ended up being a woman, the husband was obliged to keep and carry the Alcoforado surname.

- Should any beneficiary commit a crime of lese majesty (any offense against God, king, or honor) or any other crime that involved the confiscation of wealth, the inheritance would be revoked retroactively, two hours before the crime was committed.

- Nuns and priests were not able to inherit, unless there were no other living secular children.

His last wish was to be lowered in the ground, dressed and armed in his Knights of Christ clothing, wearing a red cap, swords at his flank, and high-laced boots and spurs. Francisco did everything to insure the Alcoforado name would survive him. He instilled a deep sense of pride for the family name in all his children. Education and social standing were clearly important to him and he took the unusual step of seeing to the education of all his sons and daughters. He kept books in his house. His friends included the Portuguese ambassador to France. A fierce patriot, Francisco insisted his sons become expert horsemen, ready to defend their country.

Raised amidst politics and patriotism, Mariana spent her time between the manor house in the city and her father's immense rural estate. Large open spaces reaching into infinity colored her days. Children were left to their own devices, and she and her siblings ran alongside the myriad of servants that populated the households, darting around huge silos used to store the wheat her father grew. Francisco's stud farm was extremely lucrative. Horses were rare in Portugal since mules were the preferred mode of transport, and Mariana's father benefited from hefty royal subsidies for housing horses between military campaigns.

For reasons unknown, Mariana's time with her family was abruptly interrupted at the age of ten when her father placed her in a convent before she was legally of age. A papal bull, waiving the age limit, was normally required for girls entering religious life before the age of twelve, but since the beginning of war all ties with Rome were severed at the behest of Spain, making the paperwork impossible to obtain. The decision therefore lay with the abbess. The old and wise Madre Maria de Mendonca must have appreciated the advantages of acquiring an Alcoforado girl and knew better than to let such an opportunity slip by. Mariana was not quite eleven when she officially began her novitiate.

Francisco chose the best and most prestigious religious institution of the city. Up Beja's narrow, roughly cobbled streets, adjacent to the town's castle, stood the convent of Our Lady of Conciecao, arguably the finest in Portugal. Founded in 1467 by Dom Fernando and Dona Beatriz, the parents of King Dom Manuel, the convent was favored by royal and private donations, making it one of the wealthiest institutions of its kind.

The convent of Conciecao was built at the very southern edge of town, a street away from the Alcoforado household. A dazzling, intricately sculpted stone frieze surrounded the white convent walls, accentuating the beauty and sophisticated simplicity of the architecture. Inside, delicate handpainted blue and white tiles underlined beautiful tinted windows, markers of a Moorish occupation. The chapterhouse where the nuns came to deliberate would soon be reconstructed, and the chapels sheltered gilded altars and ornately sculpted pews. The walls and ceilings were covered with decorative arabesques and stunning frescoes of Arab inspiration that were elegant and deeply feminine.

Mariana's contract was signed on a Monday, January 2, 1651. Men and ladies of importance always traveled with a retinue of servants and clerks, and Mariana most probably reached the convent carried on a donkey's back. A second donkey transported the sack of gold coins needed to buy Mariana her entrance to the convent, and a third would have balanced a small wooden chest that held her few worldly possessions. Her father, no doubt dressed in his judicial robes, led the procession. Her family house faced one of the convent walls, and she had only to turn a street corner to reach the hundred steps that led to the imposing arched convent doors. Though young, the significance of the event cannot have escaped her. From this day onward, she would abandon the outside world, never to leave the confines of the convent for as long as she would live.

The papers describing the event indicate that Mariana's father drove a hard bargain in favor of his daughter. Francisco's terms stipulated that Mariana retain her name in spite of the customary religious renaming and that the convent renounce all claims to her inheritance. In return, Mariana's father handed over three hundred thousand reis. Sixty-two and a half gold coins were quickly counted and whisked away to be safely stored in the convent vault. Roughly equivalent to thirteen thousand U.S. dollars, this was a sizable sum for the time. An additional amount would be paid once Mariana took her vows at sixteen, and Francisco's estate agreed to furnish the convent with a barrel of wheat each August for the next one hundred and fifty years.

Mariana's father requested that a private dwelling be built for his daughter. Called sua casas (their houses) by the nuns, these were freestanding structures intended to keep the wealthy and well-born separated from the less fortunate.

These houses, strictly forbidden by the Convent Rule, nevertheless existed. Mariana's house would have two rooms with windows, one to sleep in and the other to live in. The houses sometimes had two doors but they were always built in such a way that the abbess could lock them at night. Francisco would also contribute toward building a new dormitory for the overpopulated convent and as more of his daughters entered religious life, he would build more houses for them.

The convent relied on government stock, rents, state pensions, church offerings, and nuns' dowries for income, and Mariana's hefty contribution was well received. It would be invested and the resulting interest would become Mariana's rent and go toward maintaining the convent.

Admittance criteria stipulated that a girl entering the convent of Conciecao must be from a good and virtuous family. She must be free of any contagious disease, prepared to carry on religious work, possess a courageous disposition, and be at least twelve years of age. Mariana would turn eleven in April.

The law required Mariana to be present at the signing of the contract. Made to wait in an antechamber while her father negotiated, she was called in before witnesses at the end of the meeting. The same law also requested that the Convent Rule be read aloud to her, thereby insuring she entered religious life of her own free will.

- A nun must participate in all choir duties and in the execution of divine rites. Should a nun shirk her religious duties, she would have to declare her fault publicly in the refectory. A second infraction would entail rations of bread and water. A third would trigger corporal discipline. Should these measures fail, her veil would be removed, and the offending nun would not be allowed to approach the altar (unable to practice her religious faith in the house of God), the parlor (unable to see visitors), the service entrances (prohibiting the nun from the only physical contact she could have with the outside world), or the kitchens (where scraps of delicious pastries were sometimes handed out), until she changed her ways.

- Silence must be observed from the first call to bed until the first call to rise, and utmost efforts would be made to maintain silence during the day.

- Nuns must abstain from private friendships and/or physical contact with one another, under penalty of losing their voting rights for two years. (Major decisions concerning the community were taken by vote, from the choice of the abbess, who was elected every three years, to extra holidays, and voting rights were considered extremely important.) If these actions did not deter the offending nuns, subsequent transgressions would result in placing them in a correction home for a period of four months.

- An abbess guilty of condoning such infractions would be suspended from her office duties for a period of three months, would not be allowed to write letters, receive visits, or engage in rapports that included lengthy conversations, writing, sending and receiving gifts.

- Religious habits must be modest. They must not be allowed to drag and could not serve to hide highheeled shoes, full or wide skirts, or dresses as often was the case. A nun whose appearance would be deemed inappropriate or immodest would not be allowed access to the parlor.

- If a nun left the cloister, she would be excommunicated. The excommunication could only be reversed in an open community vote and only if the nun was able to prove that she had not communicated with anyone while she was outside convent walls.

- If a nun was found alone with a man, in or out of the convent, even if the man was a church official, the nun would be condemned to ten years of solitary confinement and incarcerated in the rat-infested underground prison situated on the convent premises, and forever deprived of attending religious occasions, approaching the convent's gates or the service entrances.

Whether or not Mariana agreed with the Convent Rule was not really a concern. The reality was that Mariana, the child, had no say in the matter. Her eyes resolutely kept toward the floor, simply nodding her head in sign of acceptance, Mariana showed no emotion; faced with adversity, Portuguese aristocracy never did.

Despite the apparent severity, Mariana soon discovered that life at Conciecao operated under different rules than those read out loud to her. Unlike her sister Ana who was about to marry a man twice her age, here at Conciecao Mariana would be mistress of her fate. Nuns would teach her how to read and write. In times of famine, she would be among the last to go hungry, and her religious status would grant her the right to speak to men as an equal.

Mariana belonged to the Franciscan order of the Poor Ladies of Clare established in 1212. Clare was a saintly woman whose reputation for holiness had prompted Saint Francis of Assisi to invite her to join him in making vows of poverty in imitation of Christ. Encouraged by Saint Francis, Clare founded a female version of his order and took to the streets, freely performing good works. Within four years, her apostolate had become so powerful that the Pope, fearful of the respect she and her order commanded, forced the Poor Ladies of Clare into cloisters. Over the next centuries, the nuns were obligated to break their vows of poverty and accept land and possessions.

Subsequent dire economic straits slowly transformed Clare's original intent, and the nuns eventually opened their doors to benefactors who could provide them with sustenance. In return, the benefactors expected to be entertained, and the religious parlors became available to men at any hour of the days or nights. Men supplied the nuns with money, goods, and favors in exchange for time spent in their company. The nuns became practiced musicians, versed in politics, science, and the arts, providing the men with a soothing refuge from the vicissitudes of life. Over time, protected by influential patrons, the nuns transformed their cloisters into powerful institutions.

Lax morals peaked by the mid-sixteenth century and a Spanish nun, Saint Teresa of Avila, appalled by the rampant materialism and lack of spiritual values she found in convents, instigated a vast religious reform. By the time Mariana came to live at Conciecao, Saint Teresa's new moral code was sweeping through European convents. Portuguese nuns, however, ignored Saint Teresa's apostolate because Spain, the mightiest Catholic power in Christendom, had forced Rome to interrupt all diplomatic relations with Portugal. With no bishops to enforce religious law, abbesses were free to conduct religious business as they saw fit, and the Portuguese convents flourished under the governance of educated women.

Beauty and purposefulness greeted visitors when entering the convent of Conciecao. Described as a paradise of fragrant flowers, the city location did not allow for vegetable gardens or orchards, but there were no fences either. Instead, vast terraces and balconies allowed the nuns to see beyond the tall walls onto the vast and beautiful Alentejo plains. The convent housed several varieties of trees that produced luscious oranges, almonds, and olives. A beautiful drinking well, from which the nuns drew water throughout the day, adorned an inner courtyard surrounded by stone archways lined with marble benches and sculpted basins.

Much of the convent food came from farms and dairies the convent owned and administered. The rest of the goods, like salt and sugar, were bought at markets or wholesale. Goods were bartered or obtained by way of petitions made directly to the king. Because nuns were held in high regard, they negotiated the most advantageous prices from local merchants and even from abroad. Cloth, needles, and thread came from France or England. The nuns purchased fabric from the best millineries in Europe.

A city within a city, Mariana's convent lodged two hundred and fifty nuns, thirty-eight novices, and eighteen students, of which Mariana was one. Abandoned noblewomen and the poor were given shelter. One hundred and fortynine servants and maids catered to the nuns' every need. Priests lived on the premises. The nuns employed general prosecutors, a judge, and a clerk. The convent operated its own apothecary, staffed a doctor, a surgeon, and a man to administer bloodlettings, the popular treatment for many ills. There was a butler, two chapel stewards, a candle maker, a soap maker, two messengers, and one mule driver. There was a dedicated area for the killing of animals, another to prepare the meat. Carpenters, masons, shepherds (they owned four hundred sheep), eighty-seven day laborers, one wine cellar attendant, monks, and hospice employees were all part of a population of seven hundred and six.

Madre Maria de Mendonca, the abbess who had negotiated Mariana's dowry, tutored the young Mariana personally. Under her loving care and the expert guidance of the nuns, Mariana became versed in Latin, Spanish, French, mathematics, music, history, geography, and science. The convent owned fifty-one books, an impressive number for the time. Between lessons and religious duties, Mariana led a worldly existence. Servants attended to her needs, communicating with the outside world, transporting letters, collecting news and goods. For Mariana, who was rich and the daughter of one of Beja's most influential citizens, the Convent Rule applied, more or less.

The young novitiates learned the art of serving tea and how to make the delicious pastries Portuguese convents were so famous for. The Conciecao pastries were reputed the best in Portugal. Mariana was probably taught to play a string or wind instrument and perhaps even how to dance. A French dignitary visiting a convent in the Azores a few years after Mariana's story speaks of being treated to a wonderful entertainment where nuns danced exquisitely and the priest excelled at the fandango.

Mariana grew amidst erudite and often beautiful women who brought art and expertise to the entertaining of men. Portuguese aristocrats, wealthy merchants, and university students spent most of their free time in their company. Problems arose when freiraticos found themselves more passionate than reasonable. Convents struggled to maintain the delicate balance between encouraging possible benefactors while at the same time discouraging the men from aspiring to a more physical form of love.

Two years after Mariana entered the convent, the king, concerned by the growing cases of men falling in love with nuns, issued an edict:

Further to penalties already in place, considering the abuse that many lay persons commit by frequenting assiduously certain convent gates, all persons proven to frequent nuns' convents will be punishable of two months of prison and will not be released before having paid eighty thousand reis (two thousand U.S. dollars) in fines that will be used to cover war expenses. [King John VI, 1653]

This law, however, and others like it, had little effect. The seasons passed. At sixteen, Mariana's hair was cut short as a sign of abnegation, and the young Alcoforado girl formally entered the community. The nuns had produced a young woman sure of herself and of her station in life and ready to meet the world. Mariana's faith must have resembled that of the women around her, unquestioned but colored with pragmatism. The long black shroud that replaced her white veil was perhaps more symbolic of taking on a profession, than answering a calling.

The year after Mariana took her vows, the convent began renovations on the chapterhouse. Artisans, painters, and day laborers must have created a welcome commotion, brightening the walls with fresh paint and making the chapterhouse one of the nicest and most feminine in Portugal, but the realities of war were quick to reassert themselves. Famine struck in 1659, and the convent found itself in dire straits. That year, with one hundred and eighty-five contracts outstanding, the nuns owed money to farmers, laborers, and purveyors of goods. A younger sister, Catarina, joined Mariana some time during this period. Probably a sickly child, Catarina died before Mariana reached her twentieth birthday: there is no mention of her beyond 1660.

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Letters of a Portuguese Nun

Uncovering the Mystery Behind a Seventeenth-Century Forbidden Love

by Myriam Cyr

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