“Free Will, Bestowed on Men and Women Alike” - A Nun on the Plight of Women Religious

Tarabotti, Arcangela (1604-1652)

La semplicità ingannata. Di Galerana Baratotti.

Leiden: Gio. Sambix [i.e. Johannes and Daniel Elzevier], 1654


Duodecimo: 12.7 x 7 cm. (24), 307, 1 blank pp. Collation: [†]12, A-N12 (N11-12 blank)


Bound in 19th c. green straight-grain morocco, gilt by Simier. A nice copy with a little bit of ink to the top edge of the title. The Elzevirs marketed this book under the name of the fictitious printer “Gio. Sambix” and used an armillary sphere as the printer’s device.

This is the rare first edition of this polemic against paternal authority by the Benedictine nun Arcangela Tarabotti. In this work, originally titled “Tirannia paterna”, Tarabotti speaks against the injustice of the forced monachation of girls and women, arguing that “La divotion forzata/ Al signore non è grata” (Forced devotion to God is not freely given.)

Arcangela Tarabotti was born in Venice to Stefano Tarabotti and Maria Cadena. At eleven she was sent to study at the Benedictine convent of Santa Anna in Castello, where eight years later, against her will, she was forced to take vows. To indulge her passion for study, Tarabotti was allowed to receive visitors and books. From about 1630 Tarbotti began to associate with members of the “Accademia degli Incogniti”, a group of prominent freethinkers influential in Venetian cultural life; its founder, Giavan Francesco Loredan, would arrange for the publication of at least two of her works.

“In her book, Tarabotti claims that all the girls of noble or rich families, except the very youngest ones, were forced into convents in order to preserve the patrimony for the first-born male. Everyone knew this, including the church authorities… That these girls were deceived in their innocence or ignorance, rather than brutally forced to take the veil, is Tarabotti's leitmotif…

“[Tarbotti describes] the oppressive life within the restricted convent walls, where the only communication with the world was through bars. Her comparing the nuns to caged birds who lack liberty, light, and even air, condemned to an unchanging monotony are descriptions more pessimistic and striking than those found in novels written years later (whether Diderot's La Religieuseor Verga's Storia di una capinera), precisely because she wrote from experience while they used their fantasy…

“Tarabotti was aware that her book was dangerous. Although she passed it around among her friends in manuscript form, she avoided using the full title in her letters. She repeatedly alluded to a danger from the political authorities of the Venetian Republic, not the ecclesiastic. [With the exception of one book, all of Tarabotti’s works were published under pseudonyms. The title page of “La semplicità ingannata” names the author as “Galerana Baratotti”, an anagram for Tarbotti’s real name. Tarabotti escaped punishment for her views by dying before “La semplicità ingannata” was published. The book, however, was put on the Index.]

“Documents dealing with the condemnation of ‘La semplicità ingannata’ are preserved in the Vatican Library, as well as in the Archivo della Congragazione per la Dottrina della Fede. [One of these reports, written by Francesco Antonio Ricci,] specifies that there are many statements against the holy institutions. Nine examples are given:

1. Perpetual seclusion as apposed to matrimony that can terminate, is condemned. 

2. The convent is called a hell on which can be written "Uscite di speranza o voi ch'entrate." [echoing Dante’s famous sign over the entrance to the Inferno]

3. The conditions imposed on Vestal Virgins by the Romans are called better (they were free to choose a less rigid way of life after thirty years) than those imposed by the Christian religion. 

4.The locking up of nuns till death is seen as an invention of human malice, not of Christ, who dealt with many women and did not impose perpetual seclusion on any of them. 

5. To oblige women's wills to an unchangeable condition is considered the most stupid thing imaginable. 

6. Woman was created by God to be her husband's companion, not to be placed in a perpetual prison by men. 

7. Men cannot make an adequate penitence (even if they wanted to do so), for having thrown women into prison-convents because they cannot give them back their free will which they renounced, having been deceived by them. 

8. Men who do this are crueler than Herod who slaughtered the innocents.

9. Woman was created from the eternal breath of God; Adam was the cause of Eve's sin, God mixed human with the divine nature.

(All quotations: Natalia Costa-Zalessow, Tarabotti's "La semplicità ingannata" and Its Twentieth-Century Interpreters, with Unpublished Documents regarding Its Condemnation to the Index, in Italica, Vol. 78, No. 3 (Autumn, 2001), pp. 314-325)

Willems, Les Elzevier, Nieuwkoop, 1974, p. 183, nr. 740; Berghman 1226; Rahir 744; Copinger 201. See Panizza-S. Wood, A History of Women’s Writing in Italy, Cambridge, 2000, p. 332