Based on a treasure trove of letters, this fascinating book tells the history of a seventeenth-century nun in a convent in Leuven and how her complaints—of sexual harassment, fears of demonic possession, alliances among the other sisters against her—led to her banishment from the convent on two occasions. Highly acclaimed when it was first published as a revealing look at female religious life in early modern Europe, the book is now available in an abridged paperbound version with a new preface by the author.
One day while working in the archdiocesan archive of Mechelen (Belgium), on the book that would become A Bishop’s Tale, I ordered from the perpetually grumpy archivist a file on one of the many convents under the bishop’s jurisdiction: the Gray Sisters of Leuven. I knew by now what to expect: official, impersonal, and tediously safe documents that might reveal a little something if you looked hard enough.
So imagine my surprise when I opened up this latest bundle from the archivist and saw almost in vision a fat 32-page letter by one of the nuns, a letter full of highly personal information about life inside that convent. I saw another fat letter soon after that, by the same nun, and then dozens more. Within five minutes I decided to write a book. In fact I wrote it even before writing the book about the bishop.
Soon afterward, when I excitedly told the archivist (who was also a priest) my plan, he mumbled, “a convent of arguing nuns, what’s so special about that.” Pffft, went my enthusiasm. Maybe this was all old news by now. Or maybe as usual he was just testing my resolve. But I’d seen enough bundles of documents about nuns by now to know that there weren’t many, or any, like this one, full of details about what they ate and drank, their contact with the outside world, their relationships with each other, how they made a living, and especially their dramatic events. And maybe historians knew about such rare documents long ago, but if so they hadn’t taken such things too seriously. By the time I found these documents, though, historians certainly were taking them seriously, and ever since then have turned the study of nuns into a non-stop growth-industry.
I wanted to write the book for a general audience, and so was happy when it wound up with Doubleday, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it, and not just because of the original scandalous cover, featuring a leering confessor and an anachronistically sexy nun (see the picture above). No, the real problem with the first version of the book, published in 1994, was that I was still of two minds while writing it: I wanted to write for general readers, but in the back of my head I kept hearing even more loudly the voices of other historians, and so ended up writing as much to them as to the reader I’d first had in mind. The result, predictably, was a two-minded book that was just too long and detailed and too worried about things that historians mostly worried about. Luckily, I got a chance to revise the book, which involved mostly shortening it by over a third, and reducing the voices to one. I like the abridged paperback, including its mysterious cover, a lot better.
“The world Mr. Harline uncovers is a fascinating one…. The story of Sister Margaret gives an extra dimension of humanity to a turning point in the history of ideas.”
-Wall Street Journal
“I took a look at the cover…, went over to the couch, sat down and didn’t get up until I’d finished…. As narrative it’s amazing. It really is–cliche or not–a window to the past…. I loved, just loved, this book.”
“A well-researched, well-written account…. Because Harline is an excellent writer who has done his homework, his book reads with the smoothness and interest of a good mystery…. Neither critic nor judge, the author is a very good storyteller.”
-Catholic News Service
“A remarkably fresh and lively picture of daily life…. A serious and gracefully written exploration of a psychologically intriguing chapter in religious history.”
“Illuminates in considerable detail the private lives of the nuns of the Grey Sisters of Leuven.”
“It’s better-than-fiction social history…. This is a glimpse into diaries, letters, hearts, minds, hatreds and hopes; it will enthrall.”
“This is history as it has seldom been written or presented before…. In its focus, freshness and immaculate research, this book is a model of readable history.”
-Salt Lake Tribune
Harline’s graceful writing allows the men and women in this religious community to breathe, gossip, pray with tears…helps us see the familiar Reformation in a fresh way.”
“A fascinating portrait of the Reformation in action…. This is social history at its best.”
“Like Harline’s extraordinary ‘A Bishop’s Tale’, this book describes the grand sweep of history through the perspective of particular people in a particular place…. A wealth of concrete and compelling detail…[it] will frighten, tickle and fascinate.”
“Harline has written a very readable work, intriguing and historically responsible. He understands the art of telling a story.”
“A memorable image of conventual life in the seventeenth century…. Harline’s book reads like a novel.”
–Het Belang van Limburg (Belgium)
“Harline has written a special book: it is as suspenseful as a good novel, it makes a considerable contribution to the history of ordinary people, and it illustrates better than any theoretical work the changes in the Catholic world of the seventeenth century.”
–NRC Handelsblad (Netherlands)
“The book of Sister Margaret is a ‘human document’ of the first order, a snapshot in time and a lovely example of the so-called history of mentalities.”
–CIP WB (Netherlands)
“A book that you read through in virtually one breath.”
-De Limburger (Netherlands)
“His riveting book is more than the life story of a hysterical sister, and more than an account of moving events within the walls of a Leuven convent. One could find such events in all female convents of the seventeenth-century Low Countries.”
-De Gelderlander (Netherlands)
“With much imagination and love for truth the author has created a glittering pearl on the crown of microhistory and the history of mentalities…”
“This work presents microhistory at its best. Read it for its archival scholarship, for its interpretation, but most of all, for its story.”
“Microhistory at its best….Combines thorough research, a well-sketched context, and a story of personal lives and grand religious themes.”
“Bookstores are full of books about history, mostly by authors who do not bring to their subjects the critical judgment formed by a career in scholarship. To find a book like The Burdens of Sister Margaret, giving the literate reader a lively and critically sound sense of what it meant to live in the religious world of the seventeenth century, is an occasion for rejoicing.”
-Catholic Historical Review