Did being a nun suck in the Early Modern Period?

Basically yes.

In France a convent was considered a viable alternative to prison.

St Catherine with the Lily by Sister Plautilla Nelli (1524–1588)

St Catherine with the Lily by Sister Plautilla Nelli (1524–1588)

While its safe to assume that Jesus and God featured in the lives of the hundreds of thousands of women incarcerated in nunneries, it is highly unlikely that all of them (most aged 13 or 14) were panting to spend their entire lives devoted to religious introspection.

Their plight becomes all the more poignant when you consider

  • If the child was illegitimate – ie the father was not married to the mother, then she was deemed unmarriagable and the convent was her only option

  • A daughter’s dowry was so expensive that most families could only afford one. The other girls in the family (usually the less beautiful, more troublesome ones) were sent to convents.

  • A single woman would tarnish a family’s reputation

  • Convents were a dumping ground for women who were disfigured in some way (birth defect, accident in later life and whatnot).

  • Those with mental illnesses or behavioural issues ended up there

  • Unwanted children

Naturally a lot of women wanted out, so most convents were almost impossible to escape from.

However, there were those who took the imprisonment, isolation and indoctrination in their stride and did carve out a life. A convent would often have a dispensary, and the nuns would make & sell medicine. There were opportunities to study and write treatises, illustrate manuscripts, paint, sing and make music.

But overall, it sucked.