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Letters of a Portuguese Nun

Uncovering the Mystery Behind a Seventeenth-Century Forbidden Love

by Myriam Cyr

Hardcover, 236 pages, Hyperion Books, List Price: $22.95 |


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Letters of a Portuguese Nun
Uncovering the Mystery Behind a Seventeenth-Century Forbidden Love
Myriam Cyr

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Book Summary

Provides an eye-opening look at a series of remarkable and passionate letters that chronicle a tumultuous seventeenth-century love affair between a young Portuguese nun and a French officer, written by the nun, Mariana Alcoforado, when her lover was forced to return to France. 25,000 first printing.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Letters Of A Portuguese Nun


Uncovering the Mystery Behind a Seventeenth-Century Forbidden Love


Copyright © 2006 Myriam Cyr
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7868-6911-9


A Note from the Author.................................xiPrologue...............................................xvii1. Mariana's World.....................................12. War, Politics, and the French.......................203. Love, a Matter of Happenstance......................434. Where Lovers Meet...................................65The Letters............................................875. The Return..........................................1196. Chamilly............................................1457. The Letters, A Controversy..........................1558. Mariana.............................................174And then ..............................................179Genealogy of the Alcoforado family.....................191Genealogy of the Chamilly family.......................193Thirty-two Questions on Love...........................195The Game of Valentines.................................199Endnotes...............................................203Selected Bibliography..................................225Acknowledgments........................................235

Chapter One


"Because we men cannot resist temptation, is that a reason women ought not, when the whole of their education is caution and warning against our attempts? Do not their grandmothers give them one easy rule? Men are to ash, women are to deny." Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, 1748 (inspired by the Portuguese letters)

"Were men capable of reason in their choices they should attach themselves to nuns rather than to other women. Nothing prevents nuns from reflecting incessantly on their passion, they are not distracted by a thousand things that dissipate and occupy the world." Mariana Alcoforado, LETTER 5

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. 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 à 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 uneducated 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, José, in the priesthood, and the relationship must have been cordial because José 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 Concieção, 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 Concieção 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 hand-painted blue and white tiles underlined beautiful tinted windows, markers of a Moorish occupation. The chapter-house 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.