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Strategies of Catholic Identity Formation c. 1510–1560 (Chronicle)

From: Franciscan Studies
Volume 70, 2012
pp. 323-336 | 10.1353/frc.2012.0023

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On October 31 and November 1, 2011, the workshop Strategies of Catholic Identity Formation in a Period of Religious Confusion (c. 1510–1560), was held at Radboud University, Nijmegen, the Netherlands, as part of the research project Religious Orders and Religious Identity Formation in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, 1420–1620.1 The workshop explored ways in which genres of religious instruction and confessional self-understanding were used and transformed before the solidification of Catholic doctrine in the wake of the Council of Trent.

The workshop consisted of four sessions: “Reinterpreting the Catholic World Before the Council of Trent”; “Catholic Sermons as Vehicles of Religious Instruction”; “The Bible and para-Biblical Literature”; “Order Chronicles and Saints’ Lives as Representations of Religious Identity.”2 In addition to participants from Nijmegen, the workshop involved researchers from the University of Groningen (the project Holy Writ and Lay Readers: A Social History of Vernacular Bible Translations in the Middle Ages), as well as scholars from England, Italy, and the USA.

Reinterpreting the Catholic World before Trent

In the introduction, Bert Roest (Radboud University, Nijmegen) reminded participants that historians often unwittingly adopt ideological frameworks and guiding concepts invented by partisan protagonists from the past. For the period under discussion, this has facilitated the adoption of teleological approaches towards the Reformation and the Catholic reactions to it. This makes it difficult to interpret religious developments from different perspectives, and encourages historians to neglect forms of religious engagement and textual production that differ from the accepted historical narrative. As a result, many fail to appreciate the ongoing contribution of Observant reforms that fed the foundation of new congregations and fuelled missionary activities in both Europe and abroad. By focusing on the so-called Lutheran homiletic revolution, many underestimate the innovative Catholic homiletic production in this period, which should be studied not only for its counter-reformatory polemics, but also as part of a wider and more prolonged pastoral project focused on shaping the perfect Christian person in keeping with the pastoral aims of Observant Reform.

Roest emphasized the Catholic plurality that existed before the 1560s. At this time, different types of spirituality and different doctrinal positions coexisted. Moreover, there were competing views of what the Church should strive to become. Historians guided by partisan representations of those events have not acknowledged this plurality, and have often underestimated the regional differences at play in the religious developments of the period.

In the discussion that followed, participants emphasized that the first half of the sixteenth century was not simply a period of religious crisis and rupture but also a period of religious enthusiasm and complexity. Moreover, the perceived sense of crisis indicated a sincere religious engagement at many levels of society. Following an observation by Jussi Hanska (Finnish Academy in Rome), participants expressed concern that, once confessional teleological biases are overcome, historical research could face new challenges, as modern scholars might be insensitive to, or sometimes even antagonistic towards, the shaping force of religion in nonsecularized societies. This could again make a proper historical evaluation of the period difficult.

In her presentation, Gabriella Zarri (University of Florence) spoke about the construction of feminine identity and sanctity, primarily among Poor Clares and Dominican nuns.3 The focus was on Clare donne (famous women), who were frequently of high social standing. These women combined learning with saintly repute, and together with non-religious heroines, figured prominently in works such as Sabatino degli Arienti’s Ginevra de le clare donne. Zarri focused on important religious and intellectual centers, such as the Observant Clarissan Santa Lucia monastery, where women produced influential texts, such as Catarina Vigri’s Sette armi spirituali and Illuminata Bembo’s Specchio di illuminazione. Thanks to the international character of Observant movements, these texts, which frequently proposed reading the Bible and theological literature as means of shaping feminine religious identity formation, circulated widely.

This international character was also visible in the propagation of the cult of Caterina da Siena in the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth century through the production and circulation of hagiographical texts by scriptoria and houses from several religious orders. Similarly, the works of the Poor Clare Camilla Battista da Varano circulated widely. Her autobiography...

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