Kathleen M. Comerford. Ordaining the Catholic Reformation: Priests and Seminary Pedagogy in Fiesole, 1575-1675. Firenze: Leo S Olschki, 2001. xxii + 161 pp. EUR 19.63 (paper), ISBN 978-88-222-4960-9.
Reviewed by Christopher Carlsmith (Department of History, University of Massachusetts Lowell)
Published on H-Italy (August, 2002)
Clerical Education After the Council of Trent: A Slow Start
Clerical Education After the Council of Trent: A Slow Start
This work examines the history of the diocesan seminary in Fiesole from its putative founding in 1575 through its centenary in 1675. Based on the author's doctoral dissertation, Ordaining the Catholic Reformation analyzes the effectiveness (or lack) of efforts to bring Tridentine reform to Italian parishes. Comerford's conclusion, at least for this particular seminary just outside of Florence, is that despite the flowery rhetoric promulgated by bishops and the Catholic Church, the seminary had very little success during its opening century. As the author observes in her conclusion, "the diocesan seminary of Fiesole was an institution with few students, fewer instructors, a small library, and little impact" (p. 109). This conclusion contrasts with the long-held view that marks Tridentine seminaries as one of the crown jewels of sixteenth-century reform. In addition to a detailed knowledge of early modern religious education and the details of curriculum, staffing, common texts, etc., Comerford demonstrates great sensitivity to issues of historical context. She frequently links the case of Fiesole with that of other towns, and her subsequent scholarship has explored the phenomenon of the "Tuscan seminary" through comparative work with neighboring dioceses.
The book is divided into three parts, beginning with a pair of chapters on clerical education prior to and during the Council of Trent. These chapters illustrate how the seminaries represented a departure from previous educational initiatives such as cathedral schools and Schools of Christian Doctrine. Comerford emphasizes the practical, educational focus of Tridentine seminaries which sought to prepare parish priests for the care of souls, in contrast to the rigorous intellectual training more typical of university theology. Thus seminaries were not intended to replace university study, but rather to offer an alternative that was almost a "trade school" for priests who came from and intended to return to a home parish. Viewed from this perspective, the absence of a vast library in Fiesole's seminary, for example, becomes more comprehensible.
Part 2 examines the history and function of the seminary itself. Although the bishop began soliciting benefices in 1575, there is no record of students and faculty until the mid-1630s. The sources are uneven at best, but Comerford is very thorough in documenting the various synods, letters, and decrees that reveal the early history. In addition to describing the disciplined and regimented life expected of seminarians, she offers a number of tables on annual attendance, geographic origin, administrative staff, and the various kinds of maestri employed. The seminary did not attract the sons of the elite and the powerful, and there is little evidence of it having a substantial impact in the local community. Nor did it produce great scholars or the "shock troops" of the Counter-Reformation. Instead it apparently sought to improve the literacy and ethical behavior of local parish priests in order that they might pass these benefits along to their parishioners. The final chapter of part 2 examines the holdings of the seminary library, and briefly compares diocesan seminaries with Jesuit colleges.
Part 3 compares the case study of Fiesole with the ideal propagated by the Council of Trent, and finds the former sadly lacking. By almost any yardstick--student attendance, financial stability, career enhancement--the seminary in Fiesole was unsuccessful for most of the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, argues Comerford, while this institution may not have been successful, the concept of the seminary endured and would later flourish. Only in the eighteenth century would it become customary for priests to attend seminary; in the seventeenth century, well under half of eligible priests attended seminary and even fewer graduated. The penultimate chapter relies heavily on statistical analysis, with mixed results. While the creation of some statistical benchmarks is useful (e.g., urban vs. rural students), the sources are sufficiently incomplete as to call their ultimate validity into question. For example, in trying to evaluate why students left seminary early, 65.4 percent provided no explanation. The fact that 1.7 percent left because of being promoted to subdeacon would seem relatively unimportant. To what extent is the case of Fiesole typical of other seminaries? Although some other detailed studies exist (e.g., Thomas Deutscher's work on Novara, and Comerford's historiographical review in Sixteenth Century Journal), it's difficult to say with certainty. Ordaining the Catholic Reformation reminds us that we must look beyond episcopal praise and the occasional example of success (e.g., Carlo Borromeo's seminary in Milan) in order to understand how effective the Tridentine Reformation was on the ground. Comerford's book also suggests reassessing the terminus ad quem of the Catholic Reformation, typically dated to about 1648. If Fiesole's seminary is at all typical, then the trickle-down effect of Tridentine Reform was indeed much later than has traditionally been ascribed.
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Christopher Carlsmith. Review of Comerford, Kathleen M., Ordaining the Catholic Reformation: Priests and Seminary Pedagogy in Fiesole, 1575-1675.
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