Venus in the Cloister  

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"Diderot [...] in his Salon de 1765 [...] relates how he once asked a female bookseller (Mademoiselle Babuti, who later became Madame Greuze) for La Fontaine and other tolerated licentious works, which the woman presented to him without hesitation. When he asked for Vénus dans le cloître, however, she vehemently denied his request and informed him that she did not sell such wicked things." -- "A Monster for Our Times", Matthew Bridge

This is the text:

"Je l'ai bien aimée, moi, quand j'étois jeune, et qu'elle s'appeloit mademoiselle Babuti. Elle occupait une petite boutique de libraire sur le quai des Augustins: poupine, blanche et droite comme le lys, vermeille comme la rose. J’entrois avec cet air vif, ardent et fou que j'avois, et je lui disois: Mademoiselle, les contes de La Fontaine, un Pétrone, s'il vous plaît ... Monsieur, les voilà. Ne vous faut-il point d'autres livres ? .. Pardonnez­ moi. mademoiselle. Mais... Dites toujours ... La Religieuse en chemise ... Fi donc, monsieur; est-ce qu'on lit ces vilénies-là? .. Ah! ah! ce sont des vilénies; mademoiselle, moi, je n'en savois rien ..."

Related e



Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Venus in the Cloister, also known as The Nun in her Smock (French: Vénus dans le cloître, ou, La religieuse en chemise,1683) is ascribed to Abbé Jean Barrin or François de Chavigny de la Bretonniere. It was translated into English by Robert Samber and published by Edmund Curll in October 1724 from London. Venus in the Cloister, considered to be a work of pornographic writing, explores themes of same sex sexuality, various sexual acts like voyeurism and flagellation and the position of the convent as a repressive religious institution.

It is the start of an anticlerical tradition in France, partly set in motion by the Loudun affair and various other possession cases which would end in the abolishment of catholicism in France.

The format of the book is an example of a whore dialogue. In a series of five dramatic conversations between two fictional nuns (sister Agnès and sister Angélique) are related. In these conversations, the elder more experienced woman instructs the younger about sex.

In an amusing passage, Marine, a young man who has entered the convent is exposed by the abbess. The scene is based on La Fontaine's bawdy poem, "Les lunettes".

In 1724, Edmund Curll published the "pornographic" title that argued that it is the church, and not Christ, that forbids sexual exploration. In 1727 he was convicted under the common law offence of disturbing the peace for its publication. It appears to be the first conviction for obscenity in the United Kingdom, and set a legal precedent for other convictions.


French description

Sous la forme de cinq entretiens entre soeur Agnès et soeur Angélique, prétendument racontés à la mère abbesse du couvent par l'abbé du Prat pour tenter de "rendre à la voix et aux actions le beau feu dont elles ont été animées ", Vénus dans le cloître - paru dès 1672 - inaugure le roman érotique d'éducation sexuelle à l'adresse des jeunes filles, dont Thérèse philosophe (Babel ne 37) et le Rideau levé ou l'Education de Laure (Babel ne 121) seront les fleurons. Ici, l'évocation des plaisirs emprunte à la religion son vocabulaire et à la rhétorique ses subtilités pour subvertir plus sûrement et de l'intérieur la morale close de l'Eglise. Et, par le jeu du paradoxe, donner à ce roman précurseur une grande liberté de ton. --via

Publishing History

The publication of Venus in the Cloister from London in 1724 was not without its fair share of controversy. It's publication is attributed to Edmund Curll, a popular and quite interesting figure of 18th century London. He was notoriously reputed for championing the cause of experimental books that focused on themes of sexuality. Even though Edmund Curll ensured that his name was not mentioned in the title page of Robert Samber’s translation, it did not prevent him for running into trouble. Curll began to face problems right after the publication of this book and was arrested twice in 1725 and then again in 1727. He became the first person in England to be convicted on charge of obscenity under the common law.

William James Thoms, Edmund Curll’s biographer, recorded the proceedings of the trial. There appears to be a confusion in understanding the chronology of the trial because Thoms claims that Venus in the Cloister was only one of the three publications for which he was sent to trial, and perhaps not the most important one either.

Edmund Curll’s arrest was not just an action directed against Curll the individual but also the types of books he usually published. A report in The Whitehall Evening Post, claims that Lord Townshend was responsible for having Edmund Curll arrested in 1725 because he published "obscene Books and Pamphlets, tending to encourage Vice and Immorality".

Edmund Curll had relevant arguments against Townshend’s attack. Venus in the Cloister was a translation which had not acquired any legal action when it first appeared on print. Moreover, Edmund Curll argued that, Jean Barrin’s work was meant to be read as a satire attacking the injustices of the Church. Even A Treatise of the Use of Flogging in Venerial Affairs had been published before its translation without any legal intervention. The argument was quite valid and in favor of Edmund Curll but his luck was short lived. While Townshend fretted over how to convict Curll, John Ker appeared on the scene. Edmund Curll had met John Ker in jail- he was an old man with quite an adventurous history and conveniently enough for Curll, he had just finished writing his memoirs which was also quite libelous . When Curll published Memoirs of John Ker, Townshend found enough reason to send him behind bars once again, and this time with plenty of legal reason.

In 1727 the King’s Bench declared that selling any kind of sexually explicit literature was an act of misdemeanor. In 1728, three years after his first arrest Curll’s sentence was pronounced. He had to pay, by way of fine, 25 marks each for Venus in the Cloister and A Treatise of the Use of Flogging and 20 marks for the memoirs. More significantly he was asked to stand for an hour on the Pillory at Charring Cross. “At the end of the hour, during which nothing more actually occurred, Curll was hoisted up on the shoulders of a couple of his strongest supporters and taken off to a nearby pub for a few pints.”

Plot Synopsis

The Venus in the Cloister is made up of five dialogues, all of them carried out between Sister Agnes and Sister Angelica. The entire story can be considered as a “whore dialogue” in which the elder nun trains the younger one in matters of sex. Sister Angelica is the older and more experienced nun who had come to the convent at the age of thirteen. She has been a part of the House for almost seven years now while Sister Agnes is younger and new to the place.

The dialogue begins when Sister Agnes is caught in the act of masturbating by the older and wiser nun Sister Angelica. She is embarrassed and taken aback while Sister Angelica appears to be quite unaffected by what she has just witnessed.

Agnes: Ah lard! Sister Angelica, for heaven’s Sake, do not come into our Cell; I am not visible at present. Ought you to surprize people in the condition I am in? I thought I had shut the door. Angel: Be quiet, my dear, what is it gives thee this Alarm? The mighty Crime of seeing the shift thy self, or doing (something) somewhat more refreshing? Good friends ought to conceal nothing from one another. Sit down again upon the Mattress, I’ll go and shut the Door.

What follows is an attempt by Sister Angelica to seduce the younger nun. Sister Agnes is discomfited to have been caught by the elder nun and so she meekly protests to Sister Angelica’s sexual attempts.

Agnes: Ah Lud! how you squeeze me in your Arms ; Don’t you see I am naked to my Smock? Ah! you have set me all on Fire.

However Angelica knows that her seduction will remain incomplete unless the younger nun’s philosophical thought process remains unchanged. So she promises Agnes teachings of a new kind of religion in which there is little room for self denial and more scope for “informed Judgment”. Angelica then proceeds to mentions Reverend Father Jesuit who helped open her mind to such new types of religious speculations and debate. The father talks of Religion in terms of two distinct bodies- "one of which is purely celestial and supernatural, the other terrestrial and corruptible, which is only the invention of Men". The second body is termed as Policy which tends to destroy inner peace.

Angelica decides to explore the different designs of the “Policy” in putting up such elaborate rules to be followed. The following speech on Policy given is Sister Angelica becomes essential in establishing the sex scenes that follows.

Policy, which cannot suffer any Thing defective in the State, seeing the Increase of these Recluses, their Disorder and Irregularity, was obliged to make use of it’s Power…It had a Mind to rid it self entirely of those Leaches, who through laziness and horrible sloath, would live on the Labour of poor People; but this Buckler of Religion with which they cover themselves, and the Judgment of the Vulgar, of which they had already made themselves Masters, gave Things another Turn; so that these Communities were not entirely unuseful to the Commonwealth.Policy, then looked upon these Houses so many Common-Sewers, into which it might disperse it self of its Superfluities; it makes use of them to ease Families, whom a great Number of Children would make poor and indigent, if there were not Places for them to retire to; and that their Retreat many be secure, without any Hopes of Return, it invented Vows, by which it pretends to bind us, and tye us indissolubly, to that State which we have embraced: It makes us even renounce the Rights which nature has given us, and separate us from the World in such Manner, that we make no part of it.

What follows is a process of exploration of the sexual desires of both the nuns. While Angelica imparts her knowledge, Sister Agnes carefully acts the part of the younger nun who tries to escape seduction but with failed attempts. Agnes submits to being in a sense of “Confusion” and she is embarrassed to let the older nun see her body. This also relates to the fact that Agnes has not completely accepted the religious and philosophical deliberations of the older nun. Gradually as she starts accepting the truth of her own body and sexuality she will finally be free from her old biases.


Sexuality- “Whore dialogue”

whore dialogue

Venus in the Cloister is considered to be a whore dialogue. Before Barrin’s work, this form of writing was started by Pietro Aretino's Ragionamenti (1534-36). La Retorica del puttane written by Ferrante Pallavicino (1642) and The School of Venus (1680)and A Dialogue Between a Married Lady and a Maid (1740) are considered to be important works in this genre of pornographic writing.In such stories, dramatic dialogues are exchanged between an older experienced women and younger woman. The older woman imparts her knowledge of sexual experience through lessons or life stories that tend to be profound and pleasurable all at once.

In Barrin’s Venus in the Cloister, acts of masturbation, flagellation, same sex sexuality, voyeurism and copulation are explored in details. Initially Barrin's work contained three dialogues but later more was added when Jean Barrin read amorous tales of affairs between nuns and monks. Sadomasochism is explored and there is a deliberate attempt to describe sexual acts in graphic details.

The theme of female intimacy is explored in great details in Barrin’s work as Sister Agnes and Sister Angelica engage in acts of sexuality. The convent was considered to provide a repressive environment where such sexual relations between nuns were considered to be quite common. This oppressive setting of the church and subsequent lesbian relations that developed as a result was a popular theme in literature during the reforms of Protestantism and Counter-Reformation.L’es Ecolles de Filles, translated as The School of Venus (1688) and Denis Diderot's La Religieuse (1796) are popular examples of this emerging theme in the literature of that time.

Religious repression

Unlike the general body of pornotopia, Jean Barrin’s work is not merely a series of dialogues on sexuality. More importantly Barrin’s work aims at satirizing the convents of seventeenth century that expected nuns to live in a "cloister" of sexual repression and suffering. The State used religious ideology as a means of control and this is precisely what Barrin aims to criticize through Sister Angelica’s teachings. Sex becomes the only means of protest against such rigorous controls of the state. A careful parallel is drawn between the act of sexual pleasure and protesting against repressive state control. Bradford Keyes Mudge notes that "At the moment of orgasm, individuality triumphs over the collective, nature acts out against culture and freedom strikes a blow against tyranny."

Gradually through the dialogues, Agnes begins to see Sister Angelica’s viewpoint and embraces her doctrines, she is freed from the sense of prejudice that she starts out with at the beginning of the book. Barrin attempts to attack the Church and its policies by creating an erotic setting with a convent. Secret meetings, acts of voyeurism, presence of veils and observers all combine to make the narrative extremely erotic and critical of repressive practices at the same time.


  • Maurice Couturier, Textual communication: a print-based theory of the novel, Routledge, 1991, ISBN 0415039207
  • Thomas A. Foster, Long before Stonewall: histories of same-sex sexuality in early America, NYU Press, 2007, ISBN 0814727506
  • David Foxon, "Libertine literature in England, 1660-1745", A Library of ancient and modern classics, University Books, 1965
  • Eliza Fowler Haywood, Alexander Pettit, Margaret Case Croskery, Anna C. Patchias, Fantomina and other works, Broadview literary texts, Broadview Press, 2004, ISBN 1551115247
  • Ian McCormick, Secret sexualities: a sourcebook of 17th and 18th century writing, Routledge, 1997, ISBN 0415139546
  • Bradford Keyes Mudge, When Flesh Becomes Word: An Anthology of Early Eighteenth-Century Libertine Literature, Oxford University Press US, 2004, ISBN 0195161874
  • Bradford Keyes Mudge,The Whore’s Story: Women, Pornography and the British Novel, 1684-1830,Oxford University Press*
  • John Cleland, Fanny Hill, or, Memoirs of a woman of pleasure, Penguin Classics,1985
  • Roger Thompson, "Unfit for modest ears: a study of pornographic, obscene, and bawdy works written or published in England in the second half of the seventeenth century", Rowman and Littlefield, 1979, ISBN 0847661954
  • Clare A. Lyons,Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender & Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730–1830,University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Elizabeth Susan Wahl, Invisible Relations: representations of female intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment, Stanford University Press


See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Venus in the Cloister" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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