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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of church bells)

HANSEN: Mornings at St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania begin with a call to prayer. The monks come to a majestic red brick-domed basilica, the center and the highest point of some 300 acres of land. It's surrounded by the campus of St. Vincent College and St. Vincent Seminary.

This is the first Benedictine monastery in North America, founded in 1846 by a Bavarian priest, Boniface Wimmer. He and a band of 18 followers began the transformation of a frontier Catholic parish into a church, college, seminary and monastic community.

In a letter dated July 29th, 1853, Father Boniface wrote of sending a lay brother to a local miller to learn the grinding mechanism. A gristmill was built and in use by 1854.

FATHER THOMAS: By its very nature, Benedictine communities do their best to sustain themselves as much as possible. And so, one of the first things you do before you even start teaching and running a school - which is important as to why the Benedictines came here - is you need to be able to provide the basics.

HANSEN: That's Father Thomas, our guide to the historic gristmill at St. Vincent Archabbey. Coming up, a visit to the 21st century Benedictine community, but first…

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: A taste of music as it would've been heard in a 16th century Benedictine convent in Italy. Sarah Dunant sets her new novel in the fictional Santa Caterina cloister in Ferrara, Italy. "Sacred Hearts" is the third of what Dunant calls her renaissance trilogy. "Birth of Venus" was about a passionate woman artist. "In the Company of the Courtesan" was about, well, passion. And "Sacred Hearts" introduces us to a community of nuns.

It is 1570, just after sweeping changes were made in the Roman Catholic Church. Sarah Dunant is in our studio to tell us more. Welcome back to the program.

Ms. SARAH DUNANT (Author, "Sacred Hearts"): Oh, thank you. It's great to be here, Liane.

HANSEN: Why 1570?

Ms. DUNANT: Because as you just suggested, it's a really good cusp moment for politics in the church. But it's also - probably more powerfully - the moment when most women were going into convents. I mean, this book begins with really quite a chilling statistic. That by the end of the 16th century, dowry inflation has risen so high within places like northern Europe that most noble or well-bred families can only afford to marry off one daughter.

And so the second daughter or the slightly slow one or the one who had smallpox or was born with a bit of a limp, those daughters get sent to convents from the age of 15 or 16 on, as soon as they start to menstruate. You either have a flesh-and-blood husband or you get married to Christ.

HANSEN: The main characters are a teenaged novice, Serafina, and a 40-year-old veteran, Zuana. Tell us about Serafina. Why does she end up in the convent?

Ms. DUNANT: Well, she ends up in the convent because she is having a liaison outside that is against her father and family's will. So, they pull her out of the city of Milan and they send her to Ferrara basically to bury her in this convent. She comes not wanting to come.

And the first image of the book was of these cloisters at night, which looked like such peaceful, silent places with her voice rending the air with screams. They stuck her in a cell, and she's smashing her fists against the door, screaming to get out.

HANSEN: So, Serafina is the novice entering against her will. Sister Zuana -she's 40 years old - what were her circumstances of entry into the convent?

Ms. DUNANT: I think she's really interesting, actually. I suppose she's the nearest to who I would've been if I had to enter this novel. She was born into a doctor's family in Ferrara, and Ferrara at the time had a fantastic medical school. They'd been doing anatomical dissection. This is the moment in history when we're relearning from the ancients the power of surgery, the power of herbs. It's the conversation between religion and nature and medicine.

And her father - because she's the only child - has taught her everything he knows. And then when she is 22 years old, he dies. She is too old to get married, there isn't enough dowry to marry her off, but she has a good name so she ends up in a convent.

Now, on the surface it looks like a disaster, as it looks like a disaster for many of these women for us now. They have no choice - how absolutely terrible. But the interesting thing about writing in the past is, of course, you cannot enter it with your 21st mind.

Me, as a 21st century woman being angry for them doesn't make for a real understanding of the past. And with what they've got, Zuana in the convent has more freedom than she would have outside. She can run a herb garden. She can run a little distillery. She can run her own dispensary. And she has about 100 women patients. In effect, she's a doctor. Now, there's nowhere outside the walls that an independent woman of her birth would have been allowed to do that.

HANSEN: What were your best sources for researching information? Secular or sacred?

Ms. DUNANT: Sacred. But, you know, Liane, the fact is that these three books: "The Birth of Venus," "In the Company of the Courtesan" and "Sacred Hearts" could basically not have been written even 25 years ago. Because the level of historical research that has been done into the margins of life, like women's lives.

This is all a result of a ground-up history movement. You know, that cultural war that we've been having both in America and Britain about whether it should be the grand narrative of history - kings, queens, battles, presidents - or whether what's more interesting is what real people experience and lived underneath.

So, women's history, race history, all kinds of gender history have actually sent generations of scholars now for their Ph.D. thesis into convent chronicles, into court records from Venice in order to find out what's going on when you lift up the stones of history.

HANSEN: By calling this part of your renaissance, trilogy, are you going to be taking a different turn next, maybe going back to mysteries and strong female detectives and constables?

Ms. DUNANT: Oh, I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUNANT: I'm really tired. You know, I spent nine years in the Italian renaissance, and probably three of those have been spent in libraries. And three of them having nervous breakdowns while writing the book. And then another kind of two-and-a-half have been spent on the road talking about them, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUNANT: And I think I've got to the stage where this particular field needs a fallow year in order to get the nutrients back in the earth. I mean, I've done the equivalent of a Ph.D. thesis myself over this period of time, and it's been fantastic to learn the history.

The trick, and probably the most difficult bit, has been finding the stories that make the history look effortless, right? So, when you finish the book, you will know a huge amount about the Benedictine order and about the moment when the counter-reformation came up against the nuns in 1570. But luckily, you won't ever feel you've been taught anything. You will simply have read a good story where you wanted to know what happened at the end.

HANSEN: We're going to introduce everyone to the first Benedictine foundation in the United States - a community in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and that's coming up next. But I want to first say goodbye to Sarah Dunant. Her new novel is called "Sacred Hearts," published by Random House. It's so good to see you again.

Ms. DUNANT: Thank you, Liane.

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