Historical essay
Sister Mariana’s Spyglass: The Unreliable Ghost of Female Desire in a Convent Archive

Sister Mariana’s Spyglass: The Unreliable Ghost of Female Desire in a Convent Archive

Anna Weerasinghe

In 1731, Sister Mariana de Jesus, a young nun at the Augustinian Convent of Santa Monica in Portuguese Goa, was caught using a spyglass to ogle the monks at the convent’s brother monastery across the street.[1] Under other circumstances, Sister Mariana’s spyglass might not have attracted much attention. Spyglasses were popular among the sisters of Santa Monica for the very simple reason that they offered the strictly cloistered nuns a glimpse of life beyond the convent walls. As a short verse entitled “the spyglass” (óculo), composed by an anonymous poetess sister in the 1720s or 30s, explains:

Desiring to see up close
what the eye cannot achieve
you can with great confidence
trust this instrument’s worth.[2]

The problem in Sister Mariana’s case was what (or rather, who) she “desired to see up close.” According the visitation records of the then-Archbishop of Goa, Ignácio de Santa Theresa, Sister Mariana had been using the spyglass to “watch from a distance” the comings and goings of one Friar Manuel de Nossa Senhora, an Augustinian monk at the neighboring Monastery of Nossa Senhora da Graça. Under pressure, Sister Mariana confessed that she and Friar Manuel had been exchanging notes and small gifts for the past year; even more damning, one of the notes was recovered rolled up inside an appam (a type of fermented pancake, often made with rice flour). The contents of the note were deemed too scandalous to include in the record, but the implication was clear: Sister Mariana, a pristine and virginal bride of Christ, was lusting after a very mortal man.[3]

No one doubts that early modern women, whether living in Goa or elsewhere, had sex drives. But it is often assumed that little evidence of female desire survives from early modern India. As historian of sexuality Anjali Arondekar points out, “a desire for lost bodies, subjects, and texts” has come to dominate the historiography of sexuality in South Asia, and not without reason.[4] Evidence of women’s sexuality often went unrecorded or was purposely erased from the archive, while the sources that do survive – typically written by male authors either to exoticize or punish female desire – are rarely reliable. What historians dream of are sources that can tell us what happened and why, preferably from the perspective of women themselves.

The 1731 visitation containing the story of Sister Mariana’s spyglass does not, sadly, live up to this dream of reliability. At the time, the sisters of Santa Monica were embroiled in a pitched battle for control of the convent (and, perhaps more importantly, its finances) with the ambitious Archbishop Ignácio de Santa Theresa, who used evidence of female sexuality and desire as a cudgel against his opponents in the convent.[5] There is nothing exceptional about the Archbishop’s machinations: early modern women religious (and indeed, women in general) were routinely monitored and punished for exhibiting sexual desire, and this scrutiny often says more about masculine anxieties than feminine libidos. What is exceptional, however, is the survival of several contemporary manuscript collections of songs written by the nuns of Santa Moncia themselves, songs that approach the same issues of romance and desire from a very different angle.[6] As cultural productions, these songs are in their own way as unreliable as the Archbishop’s visitations; they may be written by and for women, but they do not offer the concrete evidence of historical events that historians usually rely on to understand the past. Caught between these unreliable sources, the ghost of Sister Mariana’s desire seems set to dissipate into fantasy.

Arondekar suggests a different approach. What if we were to “unmoor ourselves from the stakes of reliable ghosts” – to put aside questions of reliability, just for the moment, and allow ourselves to speculate about something we might otherwise never see: the everyday desires that early modern women like Mariana de Jesus may have felt and (in some cases) acted upon?[7]

Perhaps, like the legendary Mariana Alcoforado, Sister Mariana’s desire for Friar Manuel de Nossa Senhora was sparked by a simple glance through the window when the Augustinian friars happened to be passing through their courtyard.[8] Or perhaps it was the other way around: in the Archbishop’s visitations, nuns were reprimanded for standing at the convent windows or in the garden where the monks could see them “with kajal on the eyes, and betel on the mouth, and without any [covering] on the forehead” resembling, according to the Archbishop, painted women of ill-repute.[9] It’s not a stretch to imagine Sister Mariana lining her eyes with kajal or rouging her lips with betel with a male admirer in mind, or simply because it made her feel beautiful, desirable, even sexy. Looking in the mirror (another forbidden activity that the Archbishop described as the “the mute demon [diabo mudo] of women religious”), she might have agreed with the anonymous sister who authored a verse entitled “the mirror,” that “nature boasts her among her [nature’s] beauties.”[10]

Santa Monica Convent in Goa. (Courtesy Joe Goa UK)

Music and poetry written by the nuns themselves suggest that the sisters of Santa Monica were, like Mariana de Jesus, swayed by curiosity, romance, and simple physical attraction. A 1767 song authored by an anonymous sister and dedicated to the “handsome Graciano priests” (so named for their monastery’s patron) of the Convent of Nossa Senhora de Graça described them as “passionate lovers” (amantes extremosos) who “with so much discretion / with subtlety and artifice / know how to steal the heart” of a sister. While these lyrics do not necessarily refer to actual love affairs – highly emotional, even erotic language is typical of Baroque religious poetry – they illustrate the close relationship between the sisters of Santa Monica and their Augustinian neighbors.[11] Sister Mariana’s supposed exchange of love notes, sweetmeats, and other favors mentioned in the Archbishop’s visitation seems a little less unlikely in light of such praise.

The sisters wrote numerous songs about the experience of love and desire, often personified in the form of Cupid, whom they described variously as an “impudent traitor” (traidor atrevido), a “rogue” (trapaceiro), and a “wicked man” (malvado). Cupid was accused of shooting his amorous victims with a “sharp arrow,” leading to madness, despair, and death.[12] It is clear the sisters of Santa Monica saw desire as something dangerous, at times even criminal. In one 1767 song titled the “Song of Cupid” (Cantiga de Cupido), Cupid is arrested, “tied up / hand and foot with a cord” and whipped for his many crimes.[13] In an earlier verse, Cupid is sentenced to hanging:

The notice has been heard
and the sentence given
and the gallows rigged
for Cupid to die.[14]

Sister Mariana de Jesus was not hanged for her desires, but she was sentenced to six months of penitent silence and fasting in her cell.[15] Spyglasses were banned from the convent, and new rattan grilles that “obscure sight, but allow the entrance of winds” were affixed to the windows and choir door, so that the nuns “could not stare…at the monks in the Monastery” next door.[16] Unsurprisingly, these cautionary measures policed female bodies, desires, and gazes but largely ignored male behavior – a one-sided surveillance that still thrives today in school dress codes and a “boys will be boys” approach to sexual harassment. Yet, like many women both before and after them, the sisters of Santa Monica did not find their desires so easy to imprison; some may even have hoped, secretly, to set them free. The “Song of Cupid” acknowledges this, ending with a wink and a nudge: no matter what one does, Cupid – and desire – always escapes his punishment to torment and delight the sisters another day.

a stay [of execution] is granted
for such a vassal
who [is] known to the King
cannot be hanged.
He barely escapes from death
this King of fools
let justice be done to him
let his life be a burden.[17]


    1. “Sentenças dadas contra algu[m]as Relig[ios]as na vizita de 1731,” Archivio Apostolico Vaticano (AAV) 367 Relationes Dioecesium (Relat. Dioec. Goan), fol. 79v-81r.
    2. “Oculo,” from “Entrada de Bonifrate,” Arquivo da Cúria Patriarcal de Goa (CPG) 018 Livros de Conventos e Igrejas, n.p.
    3. “Sentenças dadas contra algu[m]as Relig[ios]as na vizita de 1731,” fol. 80v.
    4. Anjali Arondekar, “In the Absence of Reliable Ghosts: Sexuality, Historiography, South Asia,” Differences 25, no. 3 (2015): 99.
    5. Sister Mariana de Jesus was far from the only nun condemned for dallying with a secret Augustinian beau: in 1731 alone, four other sisters were accused of flirting and exchanging letters or tokens with various friars. All five women disciplined in the visitation were, not coincidentally, members of the opposing faction within the convent, a group of sisters led by the then-abbess, Mother Superior Magdalena de Santo Agostinho. These opposing nuns ultimately broke cloister a year later in 1732 and marched across town to protest against the Archbishop’s demands. For a more complete discussion of the protest, see Leopoldo da Rocha, “Uma Página Inédita do Real Mosteiro de Santa Mónica de Goa (1730– 1734).” Mare Liberum 17 (1999): 240– 66. For a list of the sisters who opposed the Archbishop, see Appendix A in Daniel Michon and D.A. Smith’s To Serve God in Holy Freedom: The Brief Rebellion of the Nuns of the Royal Convent of Santa Mónica, Goa, India, 1731–1734, ed. and trans. by Daniel Michon and D.A. Smith (London: Taylor and Francis, 2020), 249-56.
    6. Here I am looking at two collections in particular: “Entrada de Bonifrate” (c. 1720s/30s) and “Este Cartepaço he da musica do terceiro ano da Madre Francisca do Sacramento Prioreza do Ano de…[1767]” The songs in “Entrada de Bonifrate” would have been performed as part of a puppet show (“bonifrate” means puppet) put on by sisters at the convent. While the collection is not dated, the names of various sisters mentioned in the lyrics suggest that it was produced during the tenure of Mother Superior Emerenciana de Santa Maria, who was the abbess of Santa Monica from 1726 to 1729 and from late 1731 to 1743. Some of the songs appear to have been edited at a later date, likely during the 1760s. See António da Silva Rego, “Das prioresas do convento de S. Mónica de Goa desde a fundação até o presente,” in Documentação para a história das Missões do Padroado Português do Oriente, vol. 11, ed. António da Silva Rêgo (Lisboa: Agência Geral das Colónias, 1954), 128-140 on 136. As the title suggests, “Este Cartepaço he da musica do terceiro ano da Madre Francisca do Sacramento Prioreza do Ano de…[1767]” was written during the third year of Mother Francisca do Sacramento’s tenure as abbess, a position she held from 1764-1767. “Este Cartepaço he da musica,” CPG 018 Livros de Conventos e Igrejas, fol. 6r-6v; see also Silva Rego, “Das prioresas do convento,” 138.
    7. Arondekar, “In the Absence of Reliable Ghosts,” 99.
    8. Mariana Alcoforado was a seventeenth-century Franciscan nun at a convent in Beja, Portugal. She was purported to be the author of a series of love letters that were published anonymously as the best-selling Les Lettres Portugueses (1669), although many scholars now believe that these letters were the fictional creation of a French author. In the letters, the love affair begins when the titular Portuguese nun glimpses her future lover though the window. Anna Klobucka, The Portuguese Nun: Formation of a National Myth (Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ. Press, 2000), 11-16.
    9. “Carta de vizitação do Mosteiro de Sancta Monica do anno de 1722,” AAV 367 Relationes Dioecesium, fol. 79v-81r. fol. 64r-67r.
    10. “Carta de vizitação do Mosteiro de Sancta Monica do anno de 1722,” fol. 64r-67r; “Espelho,” from “Entrada de Bonifrate,” n. p.
    11. “Cantiga dos P[adr]es” from “Este Cartepaço he da musica,” fol. 6r-6v. For an excellent analysis of Baroque influences in the musical and poetic writings of Santa Monica, see M. Carmen D’Assa Castel-Branco, “The Presence of Portuguese Baroque in the Poetic Works of the Sisters of Santa Monica in Goa,” in Goa and Portugal: History and Development (New Delhi: Concept Pub., 2000), 248-257.
    12. This theme is repeated in several poetic works; see for example “Arco frecha” and “Cupido” from “Entrada de Bonifrate,” n. p.
    13. “Cantiga de Cupido,” from “Este Cartepaço he da musica,” 11r-12r.
    14. Untitled verse from “Entrada de Bonifrate,” n. p.
    15. “Sentenças dadas contra algu[m]as Relig[ios]as na vizita de 1731,” fol. 80v.
    16. “Decretos da visita de S. Monica do anno de 1731,” AAV 367 Relationes Dioecesium, fol. 81v-82r.
    17. “Cantiga de Cupido,” 11r-12r. This translation is indebted to that of M. Carmen D’Assa Castel-Branco in “The Presence of Portuguese Baroque,” 254-55.

Featured image caption: A spyglass in a wooden box. (Courtesy PxHere)

Anna Weerasinghe earned her PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 2022. Her dissertation, "Stuck Knowledge: Medicine and Immobility in Portuguese Goa, 1500–1750," investigates how the patterns through which colonial medical knowledge traveled – or did not travel – were structured by gender, ethnicity, social status, and religion. She currently works in healthcare communications in Washington, DC.