Benjamin J. Kaplan, Bob Moore, Hank van Nierop, Judith Pollmann, eds. Catholic Communities in Protestant States: Britain and the Netherlands c. 1570-1720. Studies in Early Modern Europe Series. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009. xiv + 274 pp. $94.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7190-7906-1.
Reviewed by Sarah Covington (Queens College, CUNY)
Published on H-Albion (July, 2010)
Commissioned by Brian S. Weiser
Faith under Siege
Histories of early modern Catholic communities have been traditionally constrained by national boundaries and denominational proclivities, and no more so than when those communities existed as a distinct minority presence within officially Protestant countries. While early modern English Catholics, for example, have benefited from excellent studies in recent years--and their connections with continental seminaries and printing presses often stressed, most notably by Alexandra Walsham--the manner in which they compared to minority Catholic communities elsewhere tended to be overlooked, thus presenting an isolated picture of one faith alone and under siege (and usually passively under siege at that). To place Catholics in England alongside their persecuted coreligionists in a larger international context, however, not only allows us to discover the parallel strategies employed by individuals navigating the exigencies of persecution, but also allows us to understand Catholicism itself as a “transnational institution” at the same time that it paradoxically deepens our knowledge of those communities on their own terms.
Catholic Communities in Protestant States serves as a noteworthy and exciting contribution to a more wide-ranging cross-fertilization, with leading scholars examining what Willem Frijhoff calls “minority group identities in [the] changing settings” of England and the Netherlands (p. 12). The countries were of course different in treating the Catholics in their midst: in Elizabethan and Stuart England, an Erastian state and a requirement of church attendance determined the fate of Catholics; though William Cecil claimed that outward conformity did not impinge on the believer’s conscience, the reality of all subjects being legally deemed members of the Church of England raised a number of problems for Catholics who could not easily reconcile external behavior with internal belief. By contrast, Netherlandish Catholics might also have been denied freedom of worship, but their “freedom of conscience” was largely respected, and attendance and membership in the Reformed Church voluntary--a fact that explained the larger number of Catholics, even if England tended to harbor more priests. In addition, anti-popery did not receive the often hysterical attention that it did in England, and while persecution in the Netherlands was manifested in the form of fines and targeted priests, Catholics tended for the most part to be left alone, albeit warily.
Yet as Frijhoff, Benjamin Kaplan, and Judith Pollmann have pointed out, England and the Netherlands were each mission territories--or lands that were targeted by the Catholic Church, which used priests or emissary-Jesuits to strengthen an existing minority community or bring converts to a besieged faith--attempting to survive under “special conditions.” Catholics in both countries, for example, were confronted with the “loyalty problem” regarding their legal sovereign, even if their respective political governments differed. Both communities also carried complicated stances toward the decrees of the Council of Trent, as well as the kind of baroque Counter-Reformation renewal more fully realized in Italy, Spain, and southern Germany. Part of this was due to the fact that the laity by necessity often had to take the initiative over the clergy, with hidden masses, alternate ways of worshipping, or the prominence of women often straining against the new clerical injunctions. Both groups were also deeply connected to the Catholic and Habsburg southern Netherlands, which provided channels of support not least in its seminaries and presses. Finally, and most important, they carried similarities as well as differences in terms of the strategies they utilized to face dominant regimes, however different those regimes may have been.
Essays included in this volume alternate between the Netherlands and England at the same time that incisive parallels are drawn throughout between the two countries and communities. Explorations are undertaken into such topics as the implications of clerical dependence (if not subservience) to the laity; intermarriage and relations between Catholics and other Protestant members of given communities; the role of material culture, sacred space, rituals, and books expressive of a lay piety; the southern Netherlands as an essential point of contact for both communities; the peculiar situation of Catholics living in the Generality Lands and Ireland; the importance of Catholic women and educational facilities for boys and girls in both realms; and the expression and impact of a Catholic visual culture, particularly in internal and exiled English and Netherlandish Catholic churches.
In a collection as rich and varied as this, a few themes deserve mention. According to Frijhoff, groups existing in a hostile environment “have constantly to develop adequate strategies to ensure the cohesion of the group as such,” whether through internal means such as marriage or the creation of originary narratives and sustaining martyrologies, or externally, in the projection and formulation of an identity that can be directed toward the larger world (pp. 13-14). It should be pointed out, however, that the grassroots level could often differ from the larger picture of persecutory hostility: according to William Sheils, in an essay that explores relationships between Catholics and their (Protestant) neighbors across regions of England, such relations were often supportive, or at least cooperative, with “confessional rivalries [needing] to be put aside in order to provide for the pastoral and social benefits of a well-ordered community” (p. 73).
When the state came more overtly into play, however, survival strategies were formulated and reflected a strong element of agency, despite the traditional portrayal of Catholics in England, Ireland, and the Netherlands as existing under the cross or as martyred churches. In an essay exploring Catholic uses of sacred spaces--including old Catholic churches now controlled by Protestants--Pollmann describes crowds in the Netherlands as continuing to claim “what they believed was theirs,” with some even going so far as to hijack churches and lock hapless Reformed ministers out of the building (pp. 90, 86). Denied freedom of worship, they could still “rebuild some form of ritual life” in private homes or “house churches,” or continue to bury their dead in cemeteries appropriated by the Reformed Church, ringing bells for the dead and expressing other Catholic devotions all the while (pp. 89, 90). Interestingly, and in contrast to England, such spaces were not perceived as contaminated by the new Protestant presence, and therefore to be shunned; still, burials, according to Pollmann, “reminded Catholics more of the world they had lost than of the opportunities they retained in a multiconfessional society” (p. 98).
In an excellent essay that complements Pollmann’s nicely, Walsham also discusses expressions of agency on the part of laypeople who used pilgrimages, pictures and books, rite of passage events, sanctified homes, such sacramentals as the rosary or relic, and sacred spaces as tools to “survive and indeed to thrive as emblems of anti-heretical defiance” (p. 104). In addition, and like Catholics in the Netherlands, “the circumstances of persecution compelled zealous laypeople to play a more active part in directing and organizing worship”--particularly in the form of laity-led prayer groups--“than they could in contexts where Catholicism was dominant” (p. 106). Ironically, and as Richard Williams and Xander van Eck also argue in regard to visual culture and paintings, these objects and expressions of piety not only served as points of resistance to an oppressive state but also brought on a rejuvenation of Catholicism as a “lived experience,” among ordinary and elite individuals alike. Other strategies of survival and even active assertion included marriages (examined in the Netherlandish context by Kaplan) as well as the establishment by the Holland Mission of schools for boys and girls in the Netherlands, which are explored by Joke Spaans. Spiritual virgins known as kloppen expressed religious agency, taking “a lead in liturgical experiments” by officiating as acolytes, copying devotional books, and even providing music at services (pp. 190-191). As Marie Rowlands writes in regard to England, laywomen also provided a presence that was both sustaining to the community and at times confrontational toward the authorities, in their patronage of priests, or their promotion of the cult of martyrdom and other pious practices.
Walsham writes that such practices and objects as clandestine burials or devotion to relics also had the effect of bringing lay Catholics “into tacit conflict with Tridentine priorities, not least because [their practices] were conducted in arenas and spaces which instinctively evaded ecclesiastical oversight” (p. 104). Walsham’s statement thus connects with another of the book’s themes, concerning relations between the clergy and the laypeople they ostensibly controlled. Indeed, while collaboration with the clergy was obviously necessary, tensions could develop between the two groups, particularly when the clergy sought to impose the changes enacted at Trent. For Charles Parker, interactions between laypeople and their clerical overseers in the Netherlands were not a simple matter of “the clergy whipping the laity into shape nor a programme of elites imposing reform on common folk” (p. 19). Relations instead reflected a “complex movement requiring compromise as well as compulsion,” with a shortage of priests and the state seizure of funds and property necessitating reliance on the laity, and particularly the elites, as the latter offered patronage (including for relief measures), served as mediators to local officials, and provided clandestine meeting places in which to worship (p. 22).
This kind of “cooperative confessionalism” between priests and laity is also explored by Michael Mullett in an essay on England, though tensions became more apparent when some of the injunctions at Trent--for example, the more sharpened distinctions that were now asserted between priests and the layfolk under them--had to be discarded (p. 28). While “priests certainly expected to exercise command and control over laypeople, and of all ranks of society,” Mullet writes, in England, mission priests relied on the “grace and favour” of aristocratic families to provide shelter and bases for their wider missionary outreach (pp. 35, 36). The result was a tendency on the part of elites to treat priests--who were numerous in England--as “recipients of doles,” in an imbalance of economic power that could result in laypeople, including women, exercising devotional leadership and blurring the lines of clerical distinction that Trent attempted to uphold. Needless to say, such priestly dependence on the laity did not exist in officially Catholic countries, nor were the Tridentine decrees so challenged--or at least so negotiable--as a result.
The Council of Trent, however, was enforced in the Spanish Habsburg territories of the southern Netherlands, which served as an essential base--though not the only one--for northern Netherlandish and English (as well as Irish and Scottish) Catholics. In an essay that explores the Habsburg Netherlands as a destination point for religious refugees and foreign missions, particularly in the relatively calm years of 1598-1633, Paul Arblaster describes the “clerical networks of mutual support” that were reinforced by seminaries and printing presses in such places as Leuven and Douai; but the southern Netherlands also “exemplified a Tridentine ideal of what a Catholic society should be like,” and used such forums as seminaries to disseminate those ideals abroad, or in the northern Netherlands case, across the border (pp. 124, 129). Claire Walker takes the story further by examining how these Counter-Reformation ideas influenced English diaspora communities in the southern Netherlands, and were in turn either transmitted back to England or to the surrounding exile groups. Walker discusses the founding of religious houses by émigré families or the establishment of educational facilities, with the former frequently welcoming travellers from back home; confraternities devoted to the rosary--this time under more ecclesiastical jurisdiction than rosaries in Walsham’s study--were particularly influential byproducts of a piety bred in the southern Netherlands and then taken back home. As Walker puts it, such devotions as the rosary thus “enabled Catholics in England to absorb some sense of the rich religious culture enjoyed by their kin on the Continent” (p. 152).
The influence of the Tridentine southern Netherlands was also felt across the border and into the (Reformed) Generality Lands, where Flemish and Brabanter Catholics, and those from the Lands of Overmaas, often departed to hear Mass and receive the sacraments in Spanish territory, before returning home again. Particularly interesting in Charles de Mooij’s discussion of the Generality Lands, however, is his examination of the Reformed Dutch Republic, now controlling these important “buffer zones,” and attempting to govern a Catholic majority--albeit an “illegal” majority--in its midst. As in other territories, and in England, religious measures against public worship only drove Catholics to other, private spaces. But more than elsewhere in the Netherlands, questions of the political and religious loyalties of Catholics were intertwined and paramount to Dutch authorities. It did not help matters that Catholics carried numerical superiority; even more, “most made no secret of the fact that they would have preferred to remain under the authority of the Spanish king” (p. 164).
The dilemma of Protestant, minority rule over a now-underground yet still majoritarian Catholic populace also found great parallels with England and Ireland, as Ute Lotz-Heumann demonstrates in another essay. Ireland presented a more complex case in terms of its “communities within communities” of Old English (Catholic but politically loyal for the most part), New English (Protestant), and Gaelic Irish (Catholic); but its own survival strategies and resistance, in the now-familiar form of furtive Catholic schools, household worship services, and the dependence of Catholic priests on laypeople, led in part to a “practical toleration” on the part of English authorities who could not enforce their will on a “confessional monopoly,” however illegal it was officially proclaimed to be.
Catholic communities in England, Ireland, and the Netherlands not only remained apart from their coreligionists in Italy, Spain, or France but also became a minority presence in the larger story of Catholicism after Trent. This volume, however, builds on recent studies to place them in a more central position in a historiography no longer limited by national, denominational, or clerically focused insularity. As Frijhoff states in his introduction, more studies need to be conducted that extensively address the questions raised in this volume, which advances a “new religious history” centered on “the ways in which people in the past and in profoundly different economic, political, social, and cultural settings, sought to cope with poverty, adversity, social inferiority, political pressure, or religious persecution” (p. 12). Catholic Communities in Protestant States, in the meantime, serves as a significant contribution to this new conceptualization, and is essential reading for students and specialists seeking to understand early modern minority communities who shared a faith, and much else besides, in troubled times.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Sarah Covington. Review of Kaplan, Benjamin J.; Moore, Bob; van Nierop, Hank; Pollmann, Judith, eds., Catholic Communities in Protestant States: Britain and the Netherlands c. 1570-1720.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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