Nicholas Terpstra, ed. The Politics of Ritual Kinship: Confraternities and Social Order in Early Modern Italy. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xii + 317 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-62185-4.
Reviewed by Kathleen M. Comerford (Department of History, Georgia Southern University)
Published on H-Italy (January, 2001)
Piety, Politics, and the Poor in Italian Confraternities
Piety, Politics, and the Poor in Italian Confraternities
When asked to review this book, I jumped at the chance, and I was not disappointed. The fifteen articles by scholars from Italy, Britain, the United States, and Canada are examples of fine work in progress or recently completed in the growing fields of confraternity studies and Italian church history during the late Renaissance and the Reformation. The book clearly reflects its title -- articles consider not only the organizational and devotional aspects of confraternal organizations, but also questions of social order, social control, charity, discipline, and politics -- and it succeeds at something few collected-studies volumes can claim to do: it reads like a monograph. Each article is well-integrated into a whole, and if stylistic differences emerge among the different scholars, they are less noticeable than expected because of the quality and interrelatedness of individual work as well as the organization of the whole. As reviews do not permit lengthy discussion of each argument, and as the volume includes summaries in the introductory essays, I will focus in detail on chosen articles and mention several general points about the collection.
The introductory material by editor Nicholas Terpstra and the historiographical essay by Christopher Black set the stage for the volume. Confraternies, once relegated to the background of historical studies, have since the 1960s received attention from social as well as religious historians, and from scholars in other disciplines, notably anthropologists. No longer understood as associations based on empty ritual observances, the brotherhoods are recognized as political, social, charitable, and religious entities-indeed, as entities which defined political, social, charitable, and religious behavior, rather than simply participated in it. They were not limited to the major urban centers, but were found throughout Italy. They did not have static relations with the church or state hierarchies. Clearly, much of the book's interest lies in the political impact of the ritual kinship. On the other hand, there is much more to the collection than that: individual articles examine such issues as membership (in general, among women, among marginalized groups, across class lines, etc.), duties of the societies (charity, education, ritual, etc.), and relationship with the world (political participation, patronage, etc).
Black's historiography fleshes out many of the points Terpstra raises as well as rehearses the most important theses in confraternity studies over the decades. He also notes important developments in confraternal organizations from the medieval through early modern periods, particularly the effect of the Reformation. His "landmark developments in the emergence of confraternity studies from a historical backwater into the mainstream" include the adoption of social history and sociology methodology; synthesizing of local studies; and increasing interdisciplinarity (11-13).
Lorenzo Polizzotto's article, "The Medici and the Youth Confraternity of the Purification of the Virgin, 1434-1506" (98-113) is an example of the type of socio-political-historical article the introduction leads the reader to expect. Acknowledging that the confraternities were manipulated from many angles, Polizzotto sets out to investigate the reasons for manipulation and the effects it had. He focuses on a confraternity placed under the protection of Cosimo de' Medici and housed in the convent of S. Marco, which served as a disciplinary and educational institution with duties of ritual and observance. In addition, because of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century factionalism within the city, youth confraternities, including the Purification, served an important civic function: training the new generation for public and political as well as religious duties. Cosimo had an interest in the Purification for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the important economic role of the confraternity: "Patronage of such an institution could not but enhance Cosimo's reputation as a benefactor in districts which were feeling the effects of a recession in the wool trade and were already committed to him politically because of the promise of an economic recovery he represented" (111).
In a similar vein, Nicholas Terpstra's article "In Loco Parentis: Confraternities and Abandoned Children in Florence and Bologna" (114-131) explains the political strategies of institutions which cared for youth. He expands the perspective to include abandoned children, which is to say marginalized ones, and to discuss ways in which confraternities prepared children not only for civic life, but also family life. Confraternities managed orphanages and conservatories, creating for the children housed there an atmosphere very unlike the workhouses, one which, by virtue of its emphasis on education and morality, gave the children marriageability. The lay brothers and sisters acted as parents, creating kinship for groups of children for which none had existed. This, therefore, was a method of molding societal values of kin and hierarchy.
Marginalization appears as a theme in several other articles, principally Lance Lazar's "The First Jesuit Confraternities and Marginalized Groups in Sixteenth-Century Rome" (132-149) and Elliott Horowitz' "Jewish Confraternal Piety in Sixteenth-Century Ferrara: Continuity and Change" (150-171). The former treats non-Christians, converts, prostitutes, and their daughters. The latter examines Jewish confraternities in terms of, among other things, their care of the poor; these institutions seem rather like Catholic contemporaries. In addition, Horowitz studies the increasingly elite membership during the course of the sixteenth century, and then the opening of membership around the turn of the seventeenth century, in part as a result of declining Jewish population in Ferrara.
Confraternities were often lay organizations, not religious orders, but the Jesuits are the subject of two articles: Lazar's, and Mark Lewis' "The Development of Jesuit Confraternity Activity in the Kingdom of Naples in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries" (210-227). Lazar's study demonstrates how the Jesuits used confraternal organizations as a third order, "co-opting the elites to work for the poor and marginalized groups... [which advanced] their plan for the reform of the whole of society" (227). Lewis describes the relationship between Jesuits and confraternities in the Kingdom of Naples, notably the activities of the order with the Bianchi of Justice (which became a confraternity of clerics) and associations which the Society of Jesus itself founded to spread Jesuit devotions, including frequent communion. By encouraging such devotions, along with public works of mercy, missionary activity, and religious vocations, Jesuit-influenced confraternities in Naples acted like those Lazar described in Rome: they helped reform society.
Although the first chapter is explicitly designed as historiographical, state-of-the-field reports are also featured in other articles, which is one of the strengths of the collection: each scholar demonstrates not only familiarity with prior research, but ease with terminology and issues. Studies of women in "brotherhoods" (e.g. Giovanna Casagrande's "Confraternities and Lay Female Religiosity in Late Medieval and Renaissance Umbria," 48-66 and Anna Esposito's "Men and Women in Roman Confraternities in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries: Roles, Functions, Expectations," 82-97) are firmly grounded not only in confraternity studies, but also in women's history. Studies of Florence (Terpstra's, Polizzotto's, and Konrad Eisenbichler's "The Suppression of Confraternities in Enlightenment Florence," 262-278) make use of Medici political history as well as prior work on rituals, notably that of Richard Trexler. This is not to suggest that the collection lacks primary-source research; indeed, each study (excepting Black's) is rich in archival material.
A few words on the format of the book itself are in order. The articles are arranged with some attention to chronology, but not slavishly. The geographical coverage is excellent: not only major cities like Rome and Florence, but also Ferrara, Genoa, and Cortona. The range of subjects is also laudable: gender issues, childhood, Judaism, religious orders, Christianization, charity, ritual, religious practice, Tridentine reforms, and the Enlightenment are all considered. A general bibliography is included, a welcome surprise for a collected-articles volume. Each article has footnotes, which are preferred by some readers to endnotes; however, the arrangement of the notes is less than optimal as they are rather crowded on the pages, often squeezed together-an especially confusing example is p. 53, and one wonders why it was necessary to fit four notes on one line on p. 218. One may argue that typesetting is a small point, yet difficulty in accessing references is not minor.
In general, this fine book is a must-read for scholars of Italian religious history, guilds, fraternal organizations, Christianization, and what John O'Malley has named Early Modern Catholicism. Many of the articles do contain the basic explanations necessary for non-specialists, for example Anna Esposito's statement on the organization of most fifteenth-century Roman confraternities (p. 86), but the collection really will best serve graduate students and faculty members in history, religious studies, anthropology, and sociology; it is too specialized for most undergraduates.
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Kathleen M. Comerford. Review of Terpstra, Nicholas, ed., The Politics of Ritual Kinship: Confraternities and Social Order in Early Modern Italy.
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