- The Pulpit and the Press in Reformation Italy by Emily Michelson
Emily Michelson delves into the world of preachers, pulpit literature, and Catholic clerical book production in “Reformation Italy” from roughly 1530 to 1570—the years preceding, during, and following the Council of Trent (1545–63). She claims that Italian Catholics remained so because “so much of the Tridentine reform agenda was entrusted to preachers and … in the end preachers were perhaps most responsible for the suppression of heresy and the reformation of Catholic identity in Italy” (p. 181). She reconstructs the growing fear that many Italian diocesan clergy and mendicant preachers experienced and the urgency they felt to counter the rising tide of Lutheran ideas flowing into Italy, above all that of sola scriptura that seemed to lure many Italian laymen and laywomen to want to read scripture in their own language and—what was to be feared—usher in the same type of social and political upheaval that northern Europe faced in the wake of the Reformation. She maintains that Italian clergy (not all to the same degree) awoke to these pernicious influences and by the end of the Council reasserted their authority. Through vigorous preaching and the wide publication of sermons, treatises for laypeople, and other types of printed pulpit literature, they got the upper hand. She cautions readers that Catholic responses to the religious crisis of “Reformation Italy” “could be as diverse as the new concessions they opposed” (p. 8) and that it is historically inaccurate to picture in these years “black legends and stereotypes about lockstep and unthinking Catholic conformity” (p. 174).
Michelson reviews the activities of now well-known Catholic reformers like Gian Matteo Giberti, Luigi Lippomano, Cornelio Musso, Gabriele Fiamma, Girolamo Seripando, Francesco Panigarola along with some other less-studied mendicant and secular clergy. She sees the laity’s demand for scripture as countered successfully by the clergy’s maneuvers to keep scripture out of lay hands and reserving [End Page 145] to itself alone the interpretation of scripture and exposition of doctrine, while “foster[ing] Catholic piety and constru[ing] devotion as a shield against heresy” (p. 98): “ultimately, the solution they [the clergy] proposed for scripture was primarily against reading, certainly individual reading” (p. 134, emphasis in original).
Michelson’s conclusions appear sound, but she might go further by raising the question whether this was a departure from long-standing practice. Her finding that many bishops and clergy viewed the laity as simple and ignorant seems to confirm what we know of traditional clerical attitudes about the laity’s inability to understand scripture or doctrine without close clerical instruction and supervision. She might also look closely at sessions five and twenty four of the Council of Trent, which addressed Sacred Scripture and preaching, where the Council affirms that “the preaching of the gospel is … the chief task of the bishops,” “to teach the heavenly treasure of the sacred books,” “to feed with the words of salvation the people committed to their charge,” “to announce the sacred scripture and the law of God,” that preachers “teach … according to their own and their hearer’s capacity what it is necessary for all to know with a view to salvation … the vices they must avoid and the virtues they must cultivate so as to escape eternal punishment and gain the glory of heaven.”1 Preachers were not required to teach scripture as such. Sermons, of course, were to be based on scripture, but preaching the word of God was not the same as teaching scripture, as it included so much more—divine and church laws, devotions, counsel and exhortation, lessons of Christ’s life, exempla, catechetical instruction, and God’s providence. One might preach the gospel by interpreting it according to one or more of the four senses of scripture, but one did not have to teach the laity how to read and understand it. Michelson’s collection of preaching materials certainly suggests this was...