18th Century Convents Were Brothels for the Elite in Portugal
The open secret no Portuguese person knows about
It’s the open secret that no Portuguese person knows about. When I first told my aunt — a judge serving in the Portuguese judiciary — about my discovery that Portuguese nunneries were nothing more than elite whorehouses in the 17th and 18th centuries, she looked both stunned and incredulous. (And, if I judged the look in her eyes correctly, also slightly disappointed.)
But that’s true of all Portuguese history. It is an exercise in repeated disappointments if you scratch the surface too deeply.
I first read about the elite bordellos in an exceedingly well-researched book by Mark Molesky, Ph.D, titled This Gulf of Fire. The book is about the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 which effectively destroyed whatever hegemony and world dominance Portugal had managed to scrape back for itself in the 18th century after raping Brazil of all its gold for the previous sixty years.
And once I read about the convents, I had to know more.
The king’s concubines
Dom João V’s most (in)famous mistress was a nun by the name of Sister Paula Teresa de Silva, Abbess of the Monastery of Saint Denis of Odivelas.
He built a luxurious home for her out of Brazilian Gold. She received a hefty annuity. She might even be considered, in today’s parlance, a “High Class Escort.”
Here’s a photo of her depicted as the Virgin Mary in an 18th century painting.
She and the king had at least one bastard child, Dom José, who would rise up to the esteemed position of — wait for it — the Inquisitor General.
Yes, you read that right. The dude with supreme power to expel Jews, and other non-Christians, or burn them at the stake in Portugal was himself the natural son of a nun and a promiscuous king whom the Pope had bestowed the title “His Most Faithful Majesty” on.
But Dom João took other nuns to bed as well, and had “dozens of children” with them, according to Mark Molesky’s book.
One of those kiddos, Dom Gaspar, would rise up to the sanctified (and extremely powerful) position of Archbishop of Braga.
You just can’t make this shit up.
The 18th century philosopher Voltaire said it best:
“[W]hen [King Dom João] wanted a mistress, he took a nun.” — Voltaire
But it wasn’t just the king.
“By the eighteenth century, the distinction between Lisbon’s convents and its brothels was practically nonexistent.” — Mark Molesky, “This Gulf of Fire”
Prof. Molesky details how a French observer called the city’s nuns “little more than cloistered prostitutes,” and said that they were the favorites of the Portuguese nobility. Midwives apparently referred to newborn babies as “little canons of the Patriarchal Church.” Certain pastries in Portugal are still referred to as “nun’s bellies.”
“[T]he convent proved an especially attractive option to young unmarried women. For behind its supposedly cloistered walls, musical performances, dances, plays (sometimes with shockingly vulgar themes), and frequent visits from men were the norm rather than the exception.” — Mark Molesky, “This Gulf of Fire”
The Odivelas convent was an elite escort agency, and the Queen Dowager organized the orgies.
Enter, Stage Left: Augustus Hervey’s Journal, scintillatingly subtitled, “The Adventures Afloat and Ashore of a Naval Casanova.”
The Honorable Augustus Hervey, 3rd Earl of Bristol and Vice-Admiral of the Blue, was a personal friend of the Portuguese royal family, and of King João V himself.
“I used to go frequently to Odivellas [sic] convent and renew my old acquaintance there, and to the English nuns sometimes, where Mrs. Hill was again Lady-Abbess. Don João’s mother made a great party to Odivellas purposely to carry me there and show me all the handsome women that could be brought to the grate. This we had 18th May, and a most delightful evening it was. I got an old woman that had been very usefull [sic] to the late King, called Ellena, that Don João recommended to me.”
If you’ve ever read Casanova you’ll know that innuendo and “talking around the subject” was the way to describe the deed in the 18th century. They didn’t say they “fucked like rabbits,” they’d say something like, “We did some wonderful loving.”
When Casanova really liked someone and enjoyed their company, he would “go for a stroll in a shady walkway” with them—apparently a euphemism for having sex.
Translate the above old-speak quote from Hervey into our modern parlance and it reads like something out of a Taboo Erotica novel. I did translate it, but then deleted it because it sounded too much like misogynistic copy for an adult website.
As for this “grate”…
Well, the reason I read any of these books in the first place was that I once had hopes of writing a Young Adult novel set in pre-Earthquake Lisbon. (Scratching the surface of the country’s history I realized YA would never work here, only horror — that’s not me trying to be funny.) I took a seventeen-day research trip to Portugal, in November, 2016, and walked my feet off, getting to know various places I had read about, looking at things with my own eyes.
And to visit the Odivelas convent. I wanted to see this “grate.”
Are there any signs up saying, “Odivelas Convent — Proud Royal Mothers of one Archbishop and one Inquisitor General”?
Is there anything at all to indicate the widely known (except in Portugal) history of this “convent”?
I thought they might advertise it more, embrace it. It might bring in more tourism.
But Portuguese history is all about the romance, not about the facts. And that spurious romance includes tales of how the pious are always rewarded, of how much of a benefactor the Catholic Church was, but nothing of the shiploads of gold the king sent to Rome over the decades to bribe the pontiff so he would elevate Lisbon up to the level of Rome or Jerusalem by deeming it the next patriarchate. (Rome did deem Lisbon a patriarchate after a luxuriant embassy was sent to Pope Clement XI in 1716.)
I was far more disappointed at seeing the underwhelming Saint Denis convent in Odivelas than I was to discover that nuns in Lisbon had once been call-girls.
Here it is:
I honestly was expecting something more like this:
When I took this trip, I had no idea I’d be writing an article about it three years later, so you’ll need to use your imagination because I didn’t take a photo of “The Grate.” But I did go looking for “The Grate,” and I think I found it.
See this shot here? It’s in there. You walk into that colonnade, turn left into the archway, and there’s a grate!
But, if my memory serves me correctly (and I know I’m foggy on this, so feel free to take an excursion to my lovely country of Portugal and check it out for yourself — send photos when you’re done), the grate was set low on the floor, looking down into a lower level. All terrifically Gothic.
The mind begins to meander in various directions when pondering how these encounters might’ve played out — the men outside, the nuns inside.
Were they dressed? Were they nervous? Were they totally fucking pissed off at being made to do this?
I never wondered if the nuns were doing this by choice until I wrote this article.
“Freirático” — there was even a word for it.
The jury is out on this one. A search on Portuguese Google will bring you to articles defining the word as “the quintessential platonic love between a man and a nun.”
Forgive me if I have immense trouble believing that. My uniform experience digging into Portuguese history (which I have done extensively and for many years) is that you don’t have to dig too far before you find it maggoty with lies. My other experience — and this from growing up Portuguese—is that the Catholic church is always portrayed as the beneficent protagonist in tales told to anyone who will listen.
But in actuality it’s not much of a hero at all in our history.
The fact that the country was a dictatorship with an state-run censorship program and propaganda department active until as late as 1974 also doesn’t help the veracity of its history books. António Salazar, the dictator, followed a relentless program of inculcating into the Portuguese people a sense of Good Catholicism, Family (his version of Good Family was that women should be docile and obedient creatures who stay at home while men go to work—or get drunk at the pub), soccer (perhaps a milder form of entertainment than the Roman Colosseum?) and a bastardized, censored version of fado music.
I kid you not. All this until 1974!
The editors of Augustus Hervey’s journal defined the word as such:
“Freiratico,” [sic] as a noun, means “one who is given too much to the love of nuns” or “one who goes often to nunneries.”
I’ll leave it up to you to decide if the word was used platonically or amorously.
It was far from only the Odivelas convent.
Augustus Hervey makes mention of visiting “that church” in a place called La Trinidada.
He also went to a convent called “Chillies” (which the editors presume is “the Grillo convent”).
“I went often sailing up the river with Don João, and to nunneries, and that way passed my time.” — Augustus Hervey
Here’s another gem (one man’s gem is another man’s burnt cinder?) from our illustrious visitor to Lisbon, the august Augustus, the Honorable Admiral Hervey:
“There were many most beautiful nuns came this evening, and we had music. […] We stayed late, making love in the frereatica [sic] way (as they call it).”
“Making love” only gained its sense of “engaging in sexual intercourse” in the early 20th century, but it had always meant “paying amorous attention to,” since its first use in the 16th century. And, while we’re at school, let us remember that “amorous” means to show sexual desire. We can deduce that there was at least kissing involved, highly likely fondling.
Erotic poetry written by Portuguese nuns in the 17th and 18th century
A book titled Que Seja em Segredo (“Let it be in Secret”), released in 2016, brings together erotic poetry purportedly written by nuns themselves in the 17th and 18th centuries — poetry “which revolves around eroticism and debauchery.” [source — article in Portuguese]
Author Ana Miranda introduces the book thusly:
“The king revealed, in 1700, in Lisbon, that the nuns of the convent of Santa Ana de Vila de Viana had several houses nearby, outside the cloisters, where they went under the pretext of being engaged in cooking, and received men there who came and went at night. In the cells the cots creaked, the target bodies of the nuns sweated under the heat of the nobles, students, judges, provincials, infantes [sons of the Portuguese king]. The moans were muffled with kisses.”
The Portuguese article mentioned above, attempts to rationalize the very existence of that poetry by saying:
At the time [the poems] were written, convents were not intended for those who had a vocation for church work; any women with “behavioral difficulties” or who were deemed “inadequate” could find themselves locked up in convents. Girls and women who were regarded as people with “exacerbated sexual behavior,” bastards, rebels, and who had lost their virginity before marriage were part of this group which was sent to the convent in order to “straighten them out”.
The explanation is a plausible one. And yet one can’t help sniffing the faint odor, yet again, of history being made more palatable, and the 18th century Church being made to appear holier than it was.
Besides, how did it work exactly when the wannabe nuns arrived for the first time at the cloisters? Did they fill out a survey as to background? Was there a section for “holy nuns” and “prostitutes in nun’s clothing”? I doubt the 18th century cloisters were that well-organized.
Or that the males who ran them gave much of a shit.
I doubt, too, that women’s rights and human rights — especially in 18th century Portugal which was rife with human rights violations! — were at a point where anyone would care much what the nun’s background was or not.
There’s more to this, and it’s an entire subject in itself, but I’ll mention it briefly here: In 18th century Portugal, you simply did not fuck with the nobility. If a fidalgo (nobleman — the word means literally “son of somebody” or “son of something”) made a demand, you complied with that demand or faced the potential of suffering dearly for not doing it.
The nobility was mostly exempt from the law in Portugal before the 1755 earthquake. Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, 1st Marquis of Pombal (commonly referred to as merely “Pombal” by the locals) attempted to check much of the nobility’s and the Church’s power after the earthquake.
But many of the reforms he achieved would be overturned by the religious zealot Dona Maria I of Portugal in 1777.
She was known as Maria the Mad in Brazil, and she would be declared mentally insane in 1792 by the same physician who treated King George III of England.
Was everyone in it for the fun? Or were these women doing this out of a sense of “duty”?
Reading Mark Molesky’s book, one gains the idea that many Portuguese women of the time were interested in the nunnery for the very fact that they would meet men there. Portuguese daughters were commonly “locked away” in a back room until their wedding night, far from any contact with any males, as a result of Lisbon’s reputation as an immensely promiscuous city.
But what of those who joined for sincere religious reasons? What of those who were possibly impoverished, on the streets, and joined for the room and board—but then had to “provide services” when required to?
The entire subject takes on a darker tone when one thinks of the power the nobility held back then. Until I wrote this article I never even considered that the nuns (whether only some of them or all of them) might’ve been coerced into doing these things, even if only through fear.
I mean, can you say no to the king?
The rules were different for many things in the 18th century. And a study of pre-1755 Lisbon and Portugal is an excruciatingly difficult task because there is such a dearth of recorded information. Either the records were destroyed in the week-long conflagration which followed the Great Earthquake and decimated the city and Royal Palace. Or the information simply wasn’t written down at all for fear that the records might be stolen by spies—a real concern of the monarchy at the time.
You also can’t think of Portugal and its history like you do of any other country. It has always been a very unique country, somewhat secluded from everyone else by the Atlantic on the west, and the Pyrenees in the northeast. In Portugal, the king was, at best, a puppet of the Inquisition who required the Inquisitor General’s permission to ratify treaties with foreign powers.
This was not the case in Spain or France.
The subject is muddy and murky. The propagandized Portuguese Romantic in me would like to believe that the nuns were not coerced, that everyone was in on it willingly, like one gigantic party. And maybe that did happen, too.
But knowing what I know about Portuguese history, the initial appearances of a Comedy quickly take on the overtones of a Horror. And I’d bet my bottom dollar that at least some of the nuns were not partaking by choice.
Pre-1755 Lisbon is a creepy, Gothic Horror novel just waiting to be written. Everything about it was horror, from the persecution of Protestants and Jews, to the religious processions through the narrow streets every two days, led by priests robed in black, carrying human skulls.
It doesn’t sound like a burgeoning democracy championing its citizens' rights.
Still, this subject of nuns and the nobility in the 18th century is a fascinating one, and one cannot help but become intrigued by it and want to learn more about it. If only there were more verified information.
Alas, that has always been my problem when delving into pre-1755 Portuguese history. I’ve done my best to eke out the facts in this particular story. I hope you enjoyed learning in a few minutes what it took me months to research and discover.