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  • Punishment and Penance: Two Phases in the History of the Bishop’s Tribunal of Novara by Thomas B. Deutscher
  • Kenneth Bartlett
Thomas B. Deutscher. Punishment and Penance: Two Phases in the History of the Bishop’s Tribunal of Novara. University of Toronto Press 2013. xii, 215. $60.00

In Italy a new sense of spiritual energy and a sincere belief that rein-vigorating the institutions of the Church would constitute the most effective way to combat Protestantism and instill a stronger and clearer faith [End Page 390] among Catholics emerged from the decrees of the Council of Trent in 1563. Much of the responsibility to accomplish this renewal of the faith and instruction of the faithful fell to bishops, who used the vehicles available to them to fulfill their pastoral obligations. Thomas Deutscher, through exhaustive archival research, has provided in his excellent study of the Diocese of Novara a detailed investigation of how this desire for reform and discipline affected both the clergy and the laity.

The book is divided into two sections: the first deals with the period following Trent, particularly the episcopacy of Carlo Bascapè, 1593–1615; the second investigates the last half of the eighteenth century, 1745–99, after Novara had been annexed by the Kingdom of Sardinia and when the threat came less from Protestants and more from the Enlightenment. This division allows Deutscher to compare the kinds of charges brought before the bishop’s tribunal, the nature of the process, and the motives driving all the parties; through this comparison, the significant changes in the legal, institutional, and demographic contexts of the tribunal emerge.

The early chapters discuss the jurisdiction and operation of the tribunal and its relationship with other institutions of the Church, as well as the inevitable tensions with secular authorities over matters of jurisdiction. These are useful in looking at how questions of clerical immunity and crimes of conscience were negotiated. In the early period, the ecclesiastical courts enjoyed a wide jurisdiction over matters that now would be identified as sins but were then condemned as crimes, as Deutscher remarks. The two subsequent chapters are among the most effective because of the rich archival data of cases brought before the tribunal. One chapter investigates the disciplining of the clergy between 1563 and 1615, the second the processes against the laity in those same years.

The chapter on the clergy reveals how the reforming zeal of Trent was translated into action. The issues here are important but subtle: first, there was an insufficient number of trained clerics to ensure the cure of souls in the more isolated areas of the diocese; second, the offending clergy came from the communities they served, hence sexual improprieties in particular, such as cohabitation, were often not reported or seen as grave sins, unless other factors were involved. Consequently, clerics brought before the bishop’s tribunal often faced multiple accusations, such as crimes of violence or theft, in addition to illicit sexual practices. Regardless of the nature or even the severity of the crime, the penalty was often lenient because of the difficulty in finding replacements for the parish and because the expense of travelling to Novara, and the time spent enduring torture, and languishing in jail were themselves seen as sufficient punishment.

The attempts to control the moral behaviour of the laity were even less successful. Issues of jurisdiction plagued attempts to deliver exemplary punishment to all those who committed crimes against priests; however, suspicion of heresy, witchcraft, magic, or even blasphemy was zealously [End Page 391] prosecuted. Here, too, the tribunal was often surprisingly lenient, and there is every indication the tribunal acted fairly and according to canon law.

The second section of the book, dealing with the later eighteenth century, reveals that rationalism had replaced Protestantism as a moral danger and that serious crimes, such as murder, no longer appeared in the bishop’s court, as they now fell under royal justice. Moreover, a much smaller percentage of clergy were being summoned before the tribunal, partly because their numbers had greatly increased and partly because the improvements in clerical education and discipline had proved their efficacy. New means of dealing with moral transgressions...


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pp. 390-392
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