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01/01/94

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HISTORIAN LOOKS AT WHY CONVENT LIFE WAS LONG LIFE

STANFORD - For at least two centuries, demographers have concluded that marriage is good for one's health - that, on average, married people live longer than singles.

But that was not always true, says Stanford history Professor Judith Brown. By studying records of two Florentine convents from the late 15th to the late 18th centuries, and comparing them to records of married women from the same social class, she found that the nuns lived longer.

Because figures were not available for married Florentine women of the period, Brown compared the nuns with patrician married women in Milan. She also found that the Florentine nuns lived longer than the women of the English aristocracy and the women of all the ruling families of Europe.

"In other words, from a demographic point of view, they fared better than the best-nourished and the most-privileged women in Europe," Brown wrote in an article that will appear in an Italian historical review.

"For centuries, convents in Catholic Europe constituted havens from many of the biological and physiological risks that faced women in premodern times," Brown said. Religious communities "provided the social and psychological supports whose beneficial effects, particularly for women, are just now beginning to be understood by medical research."

"This is not to romanticize the life of the convent, which had its own glaring limitations," Brown said. "But it might be worth considering that despite its shortcomings, particularly when it was not freely chosen, convent life contributed to the remarkable longevity of the women who lived in them."

Throughout the period she studied, roughly half of the nuns lived to age 70, and a quarter to their late 70s. By contrast, of the Milanese married women born between 1600 and 1649, half died by age 54 and another quarter by age 68. Half of the Milanese women born between 1700 and 1743 died by age 67 and another quarter by age 74. So although the married women's longevity improved over a century, Brown said, they still died, on average, at younger ages than the nuns.

There is no reason to think that Florentine nuns were unusual among Italian women religious in their longevity, Brown said. At one convent in Venice, for example, the nuns had a mean age at death of around 70, with a third of the nuns living to their late 70s.

Given the extreme dangers of childbirth before the 20th century, it is not surprising that the mortality rates of nuns would be lower than those of married women during the childbearing years, Brown said. But even among women who survived to the post-menopausal years, the nuns outlived the married women, she said.

It is quite possible, Brown said, that the married women suffered long-term deleterious effects from repeated pregnancies and births. The data on the Milanese women show that those who at age 20 had only one or two children were more likely to survive to all ages than their sisters who had more children. Similarly, Brown said, those who at age 25 had one to three children had a greater probability of surviving to all ages than those women who had more children by that age.

The nuns also lived longer than their male contemporaries, both married men and those in religious communities.

Men generally have been used as the norm for population studies, Brown said, "and all the data we have suggest that men in religious orders did live shorter lives than married men." The male religious include those in cloistered communities and those who went on missions to far-off places, encountering a variety of perils.

As for why women in religious communities lived longer than men in similar situations, Brown said that her theory is that women in communities offer more support to one another than men do.

"Men, even while they are living together, tend more toward living together side by side," Brown said. "And that's true even though the monastic ideal for men, as well as for women, stresses community and brotherhood."

Both European and American cultures place a higher value on individualism for men than for women, Brown said. "And when men bring that value to the monastery, it's hard for them to overcome it," she said.

Although they were supposed to be "dead" to the world, nuns were not cut off from supportive family ties, Brown said. Sisters often entered the convent together, and families vied to have their daughters occupy the coveted position of abbess or prioress. In fact, this led to the church adopting regulations to limit abuses of power, decreeing, for example, that relatives were prohibited from succeeding each other in office.

Whether for good or ill, Brown said, "there is no question that the family was a strong presence in the life of Florentine convents and provided much of the social world within which the nuns operated."

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