Malta Diary Prostitutes, Mistresses, Convents and the Magdalene Order of Nuns in Malta
Throughout the centuries many, many people have pondered the perplexing affinity that seems to have some kind of relativity between nuns and prostitutes. Taken at face value it does not make sense that “the virgin brides of Christ” should have any relationship with female prostitutes who sell themselves by giving sexual pleasure in exchange for money or favours.
Yet the bond has been there for centuries because nuns and convents have always been the first refuge for “fallen women”, for “female sexual promiscuity” and for women who have traded in sex. Raped women who became pregnant, single mothers, discarded mistresses and females who wheeled and dealt in sex were either forcibly cloistered in a convent or voluntarily sought refuge and reform as a life-changing exercise.
Some Orders were more disposed than others to accept such refugees. In 600AD, the Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire based in Constantinople, created the Magdalene Nunneries to focus on the rehabilitation of “fallen women”.
Popular imagination had always created an image that St Mary Magdalene was a repented prostitute devoted to Jesus Christ – although the Bible does not actually pronounce she was a prostitute but that Christ had driven demons out of her soul – and thus the new Order of nuns was named after her and became known throughout Europe as The Magdalenes.
Pope Gregory had decreed that her anointing of Christ’s feet showed vanity and was an expression of carnal sin. Later, the Council of Trent enforced more discipline and ordered the nuns to stay in their convents and obey much stricter rules.
What many people did not know – including myself – was that the first Magdalene Convent in Malta was established in 1591 under The Clarissi (nuns dedicated to St Claire), an Order that in turn was under the Franciscan Nuns. It came into being on the insistence of Grand Master de Verdalle who later became a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church.
Although the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem did not take holy vows and were certainly not priests, they were bound by an Oath of Celibacy which the majority knowingly and willingly flouted and hence where the Knights resided, prostitutes and mistresses were always in tow. It had been like that in Rhodes and was the same in Malta but in fact was even more rampant than it was in Rhodes.
The first nunnery was a small building adjacent to the St Ursula Convent in Valletta but the Island’s Inquisitor reported to the Pope that the nunnery was small and had many limitations, including the occupants having to undergo very cold conditions in winter and de Verdalle built a second nunnery at the bottom of Merchant’s Street in Valletta but this time endowed it with many riches.
Now all has been revealed in a most fascinating 255 page book by Christine Muscat which went on sale last year entitled “Magdalene Nuns and Penitent Prostitutes” (BDL Publishing, Malta) as her research for an MA Degree which was acclaimed with Honours after detailed and painstaking research through many volumes of documents.
From her findings, Christine concluded that the Magdalene Nuns in Malta were far from poor but were in fact immensely rich as a rule that they inherited one-fifth of all riches left by rich prostitutes and mistresses. They also benefitted from various legacies and pious benefactors who felt that such women needed sustenance and support.
Unlike their poorer sisters in Rome, the Maltese Order was extremely canny and invested their money in an abundance of fields and houses. The Magdalene’s employed an extensive battery of informers who ensured that all possible monies were gathered. They were the second highest investors in the Malta University (the oldest in the British Commonwealth excluding the British universities) as well as various other investments. Besides these investments they owned properties valued extensively in what today would be millions of euros!
Malta’s geographical position in the centre of the Mediterranean ensured a steady and never-ending supply of sailors and merchants and thus clients for sexual services. Author Christine Muscat also discovered that a number of prostitutes had nicknames and that a number were not even Maltese but were attracted from nearby countries. In addition, the supply of Maltese women was abundant, many forced into sexual services because of poverty.
Her book also contains a number of interesting anecdotes including incidences of women who were in the convent but also left when “needed” outside the convent. There were also some distinguished inmates such as one Caterina Vitale who was the mistress of Grandmaster de Paule and also had her daughter Isabellica installed in the convent.
The wife, mother-in-law and daughters of the British Consul John Dodsworth also sought refuge there in 1763. When the Knight Manoel Pinto (later to become a Grandmaster) arrived in Malta he brought along his mistress who lived in the convent but would appear in his private box at the Manoel Theatre. The mistress, one Resenda Paulucci later became the abbess in 1755 and was rumoured to have brought him an illegitimate son.
It is recounted too that life in the convents was not as peaceful as cloisters are meant to be. “Spinster nuns” were allowed to reside, leave and return when they pleased. In addition there was often litigation between the occupants and regular uprisings of protests against conditions, food and furnishings!
Widows, prostitutes, courtesans who consorted with Knights (including Grandmasters!), prisoners and witches were all inducted into the Order which included child-nuns as young as seven and eight-years-old and in one instance a three-year-old girl. Most were inducted as “spinster nuns” and a few as permanent serving nuns.
When the Order had reached the apex of its wealth and power the Napoleonic storm hit the Maltese Islands. Napoleon immediately suppressed the Order as well as other Orders. When Napoleon was expelled by the British, most of the other Orders were restored, but not the Magdalene Order and with the death of the last serving nun, the Order became extinct. It is probable that by now the Order had acquired a very dubious reputation which led to its total downfall.
The Valletta convents were closed and fell into disrepair and later the buildings were handed over to Carnival enthusiasts who built and housed their floats there. Much structure was destroyed by German bombs during World War II.
However, there was recently a revival – not of the Order but of the nunneries and church which the Malta Government restored. In fact, Christine Muscat’s book was actually launched in the restored church.
As a matter of interest, the Magdalene Order was also active in Ireland and England between the 18th and 20th centuries and in Ireland became notorious for “laundries” which were in fact nothing more than work-houses and the girls (many of them there against their will) were kept in deplorable conditions and were grossly maltreated, even as late as up to 1996 until the enormous scandal came to light with much recrimination.
Of further interest it is estimated that currently the annual revenue generated by prostitution worldwide is said to be worth over US$100 billion!