Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millenia by Jo Ann Kay McNamara - review by Elisa Segrave

Elisa Segrave

Courageous Women

Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millenia


Harvard University Press 768pp £23.50 order from our bookshop

I spent five years as a boarder at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Surrey. Although the nuns taught us every day in class, a mystique hovered round them and their secret lives. The cloisters, where they slept and ate, were out of bounds. We schoolgirls were particularly fascinated by their hair, or lack of it. Were they completely bald? Some of the younger nuns were only a few years older than we were. When I was twelve, a group of us sadistically tied our form teacher's black veil to a chair. How thrilling it was to see her head suddenly jerk back! However, the veil stayed on her head and our prurient fascination with hair continued, all our way up the school.

Jo Ann Kay McNamara's book does not have much of this kind of personal detail. Perhaps it is wrong to expect that of a history which bestrides two millennia. The author certainly produces many fascinating facts about nuns, but to extract them one has to wade through a quagmire of

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