- Bernardino's Rotting Corpse? A Skeptic's Tale of Capestrano's Preaching North of the Alps
Over the last two decades scholars have transformed our approaches to the religious history of the later middle ages. Setting aside older models of crisis and decline, reform and (pre-) Reformation, they now engage an era shown to be sparkling with energy and variety. A religious landscape once viewed through sharp dichotomies (elites against commoners, Latin against vernacular culture, clergy against laity, and so on across a wide range), now challenges scholars to think in terms of paradox, tension, and unpredictability, and to balance broad generalization with regional and local complexity. Moreover, scholars now confront more fully than ever the challenge of the sources - an unexplored wilderness of manuscripts and texts, of genres and dynamics of authorship, publicity and circulation that defy easy categorization.1
In ways resonant with this scholarship, the last two decades and more have also witnessed a reconsideration of the life and career of Giovanni of Capestrano. Though Johannes Hofer's monumental two-volume biography in many ways remains a standard, its early-twentieth century Catholic vision of 'a life in the fight for the reform of the Church' now yields to a wide range of new perspectives and approaches. From the pioneering conferences organized by Edith Pasztor and the essays of Kaspar Elm to the contributions of this volume of Franciscan Studies, scholars have transformed our image of the friar in ways that reflect and reinforce our changing view of his era.2 Capestrano's preaching, writing, and travel [End Page 73] are central to studies of the religion and culture of cities and towns from Tuscany to Silesia and Hungary; his legal and theological treatises are now central to recent discussions of topics ranging from Observant reform to blood piety and persecution of the Jews; his memory, miracles, and canonization are studied as part of a history of saints, of imagery and cult that reaches from late medieval Europe to the early modern Atlantic world.3
Each of these reappraisals of Capestrano has had to confront, to varying degrees, a formidable series of challenges. First, for all that specialists continue to teach us, general audiences lag behind. For many, inherited hagiographical and institutional traditions still hold sway; Capestrano's story remains primarily a Franciscan story, rather than a broader one about fifteenth-century Europe. And for most beyond the specialist [End Page 74] ranks, like so much else in his era, Capestrano's story is often a casualty of periodization - too late to inspire much interest among scholars of medieval religious life, who often remain focused on the golden age of the twelfth and (early) thirteenth centuries; too early, and somehow too medieval, to be of interest to scholars who look forward to the sixteenth century and beyond. To a general audience, especially in the Anglophone world, our friar can seem somehow less than compelling in other respects as well - too much a conservative man of the schools, too much a traditionalist, even a persecutor, whose worldview seems out of step with the stories of heresy and dissent, women, of and gender, piety and devotion that now inspire so many. We gravitate to other figures - Gerson, Cusanus, Christine - whose stories seem more compelling, more accessible, resonant with modern interests and sensibilities.
These challenges of interpretation are in turn aggravated by the sources themselves. Capestrano's remarkable corpus of sermons, letters, and treatises remains frustratingly difficult to access. While many of his contemporaries (Gerson and Nicholas of Cusa again, for example, and especially Bernardino) have had their works published in reasonably reliable modern editions, the dream of a proper edition of Capestrano's works remains unrealized, plagued for centuries by false starts and bad fortune. Thankfully scholars have pressed on all the same, their efforts often piecemeal, but effective. Editions of important sermon cycles, treatises, and other texts are either underway or in view - most importantly, perhaps, the brave proposal to edit Capestrano's hundreds of letters, which Letizia Pellegrini advanced in the pages of this journal not long ago.4 But this work is arduous, difficult to coordinate, and increasingly difficult to fund. Small...