Alexander Kästner, Gerd Schwerhoff, eds. Göttlicher Zorn und menschliches Maß: religiöse Abweichung in frühneuzeitlichen Stadtgemeinschaften. Constance: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft, 2013. 218 pp. EUR 29.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-86764-404-4.
Stefania Tutino. Shadows of Doubt: Language and Truth in Post-Reformation Catholic Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. xi + 278 pp. $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-932498-9.
Reviewed by Jordy Geerlings
Published on H-Catholic (February, 2015)
Commissioned by Carolina Armenteros
Language during the Reformation era has often been perceived as dogmatic, confessionalized, and disinclined to accommodate nuances or doubt. And yet, as the two books to be reviewed below each make clear, the grip of language on reality in this period was considerably weaker and more complicated than even historians have long believed. In the first book, Shadows of Doubt, Stefania Tutino discusses how Catholic theologians working on themes such as lying, oath-taking, rhetoric, and historiography discovered unsettling disconnections between thought, language, and reality that should seem very familiar to philosophers of the (post)modern age. The second book is a collection of essays edited by Alexander Kästner and Gerd Schwerhoff on the rather different subject of divine wrath (Göttlicher Zorn) and religious deviance. In this volume, rooted in ongoing research at the Dresden Technical University into religious deviance, various authors show that far from condemning anyone who misbehaved, municipal and ecclesiastical authorities responded in a variety of ways to heterodox and deviant individuals. Here too, the limits of language come to the fore as the contributing authors show the complexities behind the ways in which religiously transgressive behavior came to be labeled as such.
The Reformation was much more than a process of religious polarization that resulted in a world where varying degrees of intolerance and persecution predominated. In fact, as a range of recent studies has showed, religious dissent in the early modern period was handled in a variety of ways. This included its displacement to a private sphere, which was never strictly private, but sufficiently low key not to upset the status of the dominant religion. Many scholars now emphasize that there existed many ambiguous and unstable gray areas allowing the continued practice of religious heterodoxy, or as the authors of this volume call it, religious deviance. Research into intellectual heterodoxy up to the eighteenth century has similarly revealed gray areas as far as censorship of printed works is concerned. Decisions to condemn or approve heterodox texts, we now know, were the result of complex political processes, in which the social status of the transgressing author was often a significant factor.
But these insights do not merely underscore what we already knew about the history of religious deviance in the early modern period, namely, that there were many exceptions to every rule. The contributors to this volume argue that beyond the many interesting exceptions that occurred, there was another important complicating factor in play that merits further investigation: the labeling process. The “labeling approach” chosen by the authors aims to reveal the process by which designations such has “heresy” or “godlessness” acquired meaning in different contexts. Heretical opinions were not heretical in and of themselves; they were forms of behavior that were successfully given this meaning in complicated social processes that did not always result in legal condemnation.
Several contributors reveal that religiously deviant individuals were not by definition labeled and treated in the dogmatic, inquisitorial manner for which the age of Reformation is popularly known. While recognizing that executions and other heavy forms of punishment certainly did occur, and were undeniably accompanied by denunciations in highly charged language, the authors draw attention to the equally important proliferation of much more lenient methods used against deviants. In many cases, reformed consistories reasoned with the heterodox among their flock in an effort to return them to the fold. Worldly authorities acted with circumspection and reluctance in religious matters. However disturbing they found some forms of religious dissent, they were likely to become gridlocked in the highly complex political and religious structures within which they operated.
Alexander Kästner, for example, describes the case of Andreas Meister, a Leipzig-based vinegar merchant accused of entertaining heretical thoughts. Although Meister was believed to be a religious deviant, it took a long time for his detractors to officially accuse him of religious deviance, and they appear to have done so as a result of personal enmities rather than for exclusively religious reasons. Tim H. Deubel describes the case of the Basel-based Antoine Lescaille (1609), whose unorthodox opinions resulted not in condemnation, but in a long process of negotiation in which various parties sought unsuccessfully to bring him back into the fold. Far from showing a development from tolerance to orthodoxy in Basel during the sixteenth century, Lescaille’s case proves what the author calls the “continued existence of free spaces (Freiraüme)” that, within certain conditions, allowed the persistence of religious dissent (p. 182).
Circumspection occurred in other places as well. Eric Piltz shows how contingent factors influenced the escalation or de-escalation of controversies relating to religious deviance in Antwerp. The execution of preacher Christoffel Fabritius, for example, was due primarily to the desire of the city government to maintain the stability of the urban community. Fabritius’s actions were such that more lenient forms of treatment seemed insufficient in the eyes of the city governors who needed to preserve their authority. Nevertheless, their response was slower and beset by more difficulties and sensitivities than one might expect, only ending in an execution after a long process. Piltz also describes how, after a remarkable series of denunciations, the Genovese merchant Augostino Boazio was able to escape prosecution in Antwerp through his social position, which derived from contacts in the business world and even within the Catholic Church.
Another important component of the book is an examination of the early modern fear of divine wrath. If densely populated urban communities did not quite create full anonymity, they were nonetheless environments in which behavior deemed to be unacceptable seemed to proliferate unchallenged. Therefore, in order to protect the sacred community of the city (Sakralgemeinschaft), city governors in many cities across the Holy Roman Empire issued a large number of laws in a process known as “governmentalization.” In the sixteenth century, divine wrath was added to the means urban governments and religious authorities used to control the behavior and religious loyalty of their citizens. However, as some of the contributors to this volume show, the threat of divine wrath was not applied indiscriminately or universally. For example, after examining municipal laws in the city of Ulm between 1491 and 1630 Claudius Sebastian Frenzel concludes that the motif of divine wrath, associated with many kinds of blasphemy, was used significantly less in legal documents on offenses such as sexual abuses (Unzucht) and the practice of Zutrinken, roughly translated as a ritualized drinking game. By the early eighteenth century, moreover, municipal laws and juridical record-keeping showed a remarkable absence of religiously charged ways of arranging and commenting on these transgressions.
In many ways, then, this collection of articles opposes the popular assumption that the age of Reformation was one of unmitigated persecution, dogmatism, and social control. Even for the initiated, it introduces important nuances to our understanding of how, within the context of significant confessional and political tensions, transgressive behavior was defined and dealt with by the authorities. The labeling approach shows that the supposedly unwavering laws and rules of early modern society were often applied with difficulties and reluctance, as well as showing how the boundaries against religious transgression shifted towards the end of the seventeenth century.
The history of Counter-Reformation Catholicism is full of great names and influential theologians--Caesar Baronio, Robert Bellarmine, Francisco Suarez--but much can still be learned from lesser-known individuals, lesser-known works, and even unpublished manuscripts that the well-known figures of the age deemed unfit for greater exposure. In her new work, Shadows of Doubt, professor Stefania Tutino (UCSB) shows what can be found in precisely these remote corners.
Through five case studies, Tutino reveals ways in which Catholic theologians were prompted to think about the complexities of language and truth by the highly charged religious discussions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For those clergymen who were keen to curb the Inquisition’s power, these matters were of special interest as well. After all, precise interpretations of the phenomenon of lying and what forms of untruth were sinful were at the forefront of battles to determine what would be in the purview of the Inquisition, and what matters religious orders and individual priests could deal with independently. Jesuits feature prominently in the book, defending theories of language directly intertwined with the defense of their interests as an order.
But Tutino emphasizes that for many of these theologians, the limited ability of language to reliably transmit meanings and adequately describe reality was also of prime concern in and of itself. In their discussions, some of which have thus far barely been studied, the first glimmers may be found of the doubts that are still with us today in the (post)modern world. In fact, Tutino uses modern-day philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Paul Ricoeur, and Hans-Georg Gadamer not just to understand the implications of these theological discussions, but also to establish parallels between early modern doubts and present-day philosophical concerns.
One of the more radical doubts in post-Reformation Catholic theology was cast by Martin de Azpilcueta (aka Navarrus), a Jesuit whose theory of mental reservation threatened not just to blur the distinction between lying and speaking the truth, but to undermine the very ability of language to convey meaning reliably. Navarrus was part of efforts to defend the Jesuits’ privilege to treat transgressions independently from the Vatican and the Inquisition, including problems from within their own ranks. In this context, mental reservation, roughly defined as the act of speaking while holding back a potentially important proposition, became an important focal point for discussions on the extent to which one was allowed to withhold information from one’s interrogators without committing the sin of lying. For Navarrus, mental reservation was a possibility inherent in the ambiguities and flexibilities of language. It was not by definition sinful. Even more upsetting was the implication that human communication generally consisted of much more than clear, intelligible speech, and necessarily involved the complex interplay of several language games simultaneously. Unacceptably radical to most of his contemporaries and successors, Navarrus provoked a variety of discussions on mental reservation and lying in which other theologians further grappled with the instability of human communication.
Historiography constituted another important field of discussion. In a dialogue with Marc Fumaroli and Carlo Ginzburg, Tutino devotes two case studies to budding doubts regarding the possibilities of writing a truthful history of the church, or even a true historical narrative on any other subject. The first of these case study centers on Agostino Mascardi, a former Jesuit historian who produced a large five-volume treatise, in which he reflected on how historians should write history. One of the concepts used is giudicio, the historian’s use of his own judgement in making conjectures. If historical documents by themselves are not sufficient to explain past events, the unguided attribution of motives and causes equally misses the mark, and so the historian is forced to make assumptions that should be defensible. In a quest to determine the characteristics of a truthful narrative, Mascardi seems to have taken a narrative turn, viewing the historical narrative as a more or less successful representation of the past, in which vivid accounts were of crucial importance if the reader was to acquire a proper understanding of past events. The historical narrative was thus neither a perfectly mimetic reflection of historical reality, nor a fully fictional account.
The potential implications of this kind of thinking for the specific field of church history, in which much depended upon absolute-truth claims, would have been enormous. The stakes were further raised by the Catholic battle for theological legitimacy against the theological heavyweights of the Reformation. How, for example, could one write an accurate history from the earliest days of the church until the present, showing a legitimating continuity of the institution and its claims? This challenge proved a strong motivating force for Catholic historians to review their methodologies. Although Baronio is often taken as a model of post-Reformation Catholic scholarship, Tutino draws attention not just to him but to other figures as well, most notably Paolo Beni. Impelled by deep epistemological concerns, Beni tried to address the precarious status of ecclesiastical history, which would either have to be treated as any other form of historiography with the same imperfections and limitations, or be defined as another exercise in theology. Historiography, he thought, could not express the certainties expected of ecclesiastical history by men like Baronio. In addition, Beni expressed doubts regarding the stability of human memory, which further impacted his doubts on the impossibility of writing a truthful church history, or indeed the possibility of writing church history as such.
Still another forum of discussion was centred on rhetoric, which brought another degree of complexity to the relationship between language and reality. While heavily influenced by classical concepts of rhetoric as applying to only to what is verisimilar or the probable rather than the true, Catholic theologians felt the need to accommodate the tension between eternal truths and the fleeting world of everyday life. Tutino emphasizes that Jesuit theories of rhetoric were not merely handmaidens of Counter-Reformation theology, but relatively well-elaborated theories of language, including (as was the case in Strada’s work) advanced thoughts on the epistemological and hermeneutical advantages of metaphors, aiding the hearer’s understanding rather than just persuading him.
In the last case study of her book, Tutino turns to the matter of oath taking, focusing on the highly intimate bond between human intentions, language, and God as a guarantor of their truthfulness during the early modern period. Here too, it is a strong awareness of the instability of language that clearly prompted theologians to work out the epistemological and ontological status of the oath. Most interestingly, Tutino shows the highly problematic possibility of a dishonest oath in the eyes of Catholic theologians such as Suarez, who exposed the impossibility of imitating the certainty of the divine word through the uncertain words of human language. Different understandings of an oath between various parties could arise, and mental reservation potentially complicated matters further. Only the threat of exterior punishment seemed to ensure men would keep their promises, although this did nothing to stabilize the oath at the epistemological level. Thus, even if the oath was meant to eliminate the untrustworthiness of the words with which men made their promises by trying to approach the certainty of which God is capable, it was precisely the inadequacy of human languages that made this impossible.
Shadows of Doubt has already received some praise as “an indispensable contribution to the history of early modern scepticism and doubt” (Simon Ditchfield, jacket copy), but Tutino herself wishes to offer no model or comprehensive survey of the field. Instead, she wishes to record what she as an inhabitant of the present-day world finds “worthy of note in the early modern age” (p. 5). There is a strong sense, therefore, that Tutino herself feels the uncertainties and instabilities of the postmodern age as she stakes out her position. However, this has not diminished the thoroughgoing nature of her investigation into philosophical, linguistic and theological doubt amongst early modern Catholic theologians. If applied to a wider range of material, it could reveal even more new insights into the instabilities in early modern Catholic thought, and indeed, the gradual, highly complex gestation of modernity.
The studies produced by Tutino and the contributors to Kästner and Schwerhoff’s volume contain methods and conclusions that may have useful applications and implications elsewhere. Research into religious deviance could be extended into the eighteenth century, where much remains to be discovered about (dis)continuities in the development of toleration in religiously diverse communities. Tutino’s work can be made into an invitation for Enlightenment historians to integrate theological discussions into the intellectual history of the eighteenth century, especially when it comes to the less researched period before 1750.
Both works are also part of an ongoing revision of the religious history of the early modern period, which includes studies conducted on religious toleration (David Garrioch, Benjamin Kaplan) and larger overviews of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The focus on the limits and instabilities of language and labelling practices also recalls Martin Mulsow’s work on precarious knowledge and its survival despite prosecution, lack of institutional support, and the difficulties of transmission.
These renewals of early modern religious and intellectual history have greatly altered our understanding of the development of modernity. Both Tutino and the collective working under Kästner-Schwerhoff have introduced new layers of complexity to the story, but Tutino’s work is potentially more subversive. Searching from a present-day perspective for “what is worthy of note in the early modern age,” but then finding philosophical situations eerily similar to today’s philosophical issues, she produces an interesting historical telescoping effect that potentially explodes traditional periodizations. Instead of a linear or “Hegelian” perspective on modernity, the historian sees past and present developments reflecting each other in unexpected ways. Regardless of whether this telescoping effect was intended, it does create an interesting question. Should we continue to build an increasingly complex linear narrative of modernity, or should we conceptualize history in a completely different way?
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-catholic.
Jordy Geerlings. Review of Kästner, Alexander; Schwerhoff, Gerd, eds., Göttlicher Zorn und menschliches Maß: religiöse Abweichung in frühneuzeitlichen Stadtgemeinschaften and
Tutino, Stefania, Shadows of Doubt: Language and Truth in Post-Reformation Catholic Culture.
H-Catholic, H-Net Reviews.
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