Over the past month or so, I've been reading the marvelous historical work Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes 1125-1325 by Augustine Thompson, OP. It's taken awhile (and probably deserves a repeat reading to enable it all to sink in a little deeper) because it's a book bursting with fascinating details, thoroughly and carefully related.
You may wonder..huh. A book about...what? Italian Communes? Religion? Why should I care?
For the same reason any of should care about history - there's no way to understand the present without an awareness of where we have been. A truism, of course, and a point Catholics think that we get, but the thing is...we don't. We amateurs don't at least. We think we've got the general outlines of the past, but as history marches on, it's becoming clear how much of that outline was simply wrong and, in many cases, weighted by the prejudices of previous generations of historians who could not or would not tell the truth.
Part of this, too, is rooted in our refusal (or inability) to truly think historically - that is to allow the past to be the past without our hindsight. To see people and their choices in the context of their times, in the framework of what they knew and believed and what they could do, as opposed to what we think they should have done.
Take, for example, the case of pre-Reformation Europe. Those of us with nothing but the knowledge gleaned from Western Civ 101 think we know the score: Huddled masses of unlearned, spiritually imprisoned folk yearning to be free. No real lay spirituality, simply passivity and supersitition.
(Or the Middle Ages in general, scorned by the Enlightened and beyond as hopelessly backward. Well, as I've written elsewhere, ignorant backward people generally do not build cathedrals, do they?)
There has been much work to correct and balance out the picture, the most well known popular example being Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars, a work which gives us a vivid portrait of what pre-Reformation English religion really was like, as opposed to the pictures painted by those in the past determined to justify Henry's land and power grab as a necessary moment of spiritual reform for a spiritually indolent, oppressed population.
Cities of God is rather like that, although the context is different, and not as well-known to most of us. The context here is the period in which cities in northern Italy organized into unique civic structures called communes, which had a republican flavor (less so as time went on). These communes have been studied as primarily secular entities in the past, but Thompson's task is to demonstrate that these communes were anything but secular - they had a profoundly religious character. From the first chapter:
The communes were simultaneously religious and political entities. This may sound like a commonplace, but given the trajectories of modern scholarship, this perspective represents something of a reorientation. Historians of communal Italy once focused on the cities as a precursor for the centralized states of early modern Europe, and this political perspective still obscures the religious nature of communal Italy for many modern observers. Recently, historians of medieval Italy have gone beyond a story of political progress and emphasized instead the factiousness, primitiveness, oligarchy, particularism, and agrarian dependence of the cities, their “archaic” nature. All to the good. Yet in histories of the communes, religion remains oddly alien to the civic life. In Philip Jones’s recent 673-page study of the Italian city-states, the author dedicates a mere seventeen pages to their religious life—and these are mostly dedicated to conflicts over ecclesiastical and secular jurisdiction. The best short overview of the communes available in English asserts: “The Italian communes . . . were essentially secular contrivances whose particularism flourished in spite of a universal religion and the claims of a universal empire.” No, I do not think so. What this opposition of clerical and lay realms obscures is that the city was a single entity, however jurisdiction and government were divided. And its lay government, far from being “secularized” by its separation from the cathedral and bishop, came to express and understand itself through ever more explicitly religious rhetoric and rituals. The communes were able to distance themselves from the medieval empire because they, like the empire, claimed a sacred legitimacy. It has been argued that the proximity of the papacy and wars with the popes forced the communes to develop this religious identity—to justify political policies independent of the papacy. But this flies in the face of the political policies and communal identity of the first Lombard League. Rather, it was the cities’ wars with the empire that encouraged their citizens to sacralize the commune. The cities exploited religious forms of organization, they sought legitimacy through the cult of patron saints, they conceptualized their time and space in sacred terms, and these religious realities in turn formed the people. The Italian city as a living religious entity deserves greater attention.
Now, this particular disagreement and reassessment might not interest scads of you, but don't stop reading yet. For the way in which Thompson makes his case about the communes' religious character is to walk us through, in marvelous, rich detail, the religious life of those who lived there. And there's nothing left out, from womb to tomb, from communal rituals to individual piety. And the emergent portrait might startle some wedded to the notion of the passive medieval Christian. For the life of a Christian in the communes was anything but passive - it was thoroughly engaged in sacramental and devotional life. By sorting through every conceivable form of text and evidence - art, architecture, communal laws and records, prayer books, parish records, and so on, Thompson lets us in on a world of vibrant lay piety and deep communal ties. One became a Christian and a citizen through the waters of baptism, and one's membership in that earthly and heavenly community continued unto death, when one's remains were laid in the church's burial grounds.
I learned quite a bit, and was set back on my heels by some of it, forced to rethink presuppositions and assumptions in every chapter. I thought once again about community and church, and how much of what was planted, grown and experienced up until the 20th century was in the context of (relatively) stable communities, most of them small (even in urban areas). How do we talk about Church, how do we think about community when there is no physical community any longer?
Thompson spends a great deal of time unpacking lay piety, especially in the context of Mass, carefully making the case that although the Mass was in Latin, offered mostly behind a screen, and most people received Communion at most three times a year, if that, the laity still had a deep sense of participating in the Mass. Once again, my thoughts turned back to the Liturgy Wars and the goal of participation. We may be praying in our own language, certainly, but do the masses of Catholics - all of us included, really "participate" more than any previous generation did? Do we get it?
I was fascinated by Thompson's explanation of the role of the duomo - the cathedral - in religious life - its central role, being in most places, the only site of baptisms (which occurred twice a year, at the Easter Vigil and at Pentecost, and yes most of those baptized were infants, who still were being enrolled as catechumens and so on..), with other "parish" churches playing a different function.
Reading this book helped me understand the mendicant orders a bit better as well - to see them in context and to even see how their presence was sometimes the cause of tensions, and not just the inquisitorial Dominicans. Lay penitential groups had flourished during the communal period, but most of them were eventually absorbed by the mendicants.
Most of all what strikes me, as it does any time I read good history, is the richness and diversity of our past. There are no easy answers in the present, no golden age in the past to which we can appeal, no set of procedures, rituals and rites that are purer than any others, that are the magic bullet for our own problems. Nor can we rest easy in the diversity, which is the other temptation. Liturgical innovations in the present are often positioned up against the past, and justified in that context - there's a reason that histories of the liturgy are multi-volume. A lot has happened, a lot has changed - it is that old conversation, filled with tension, about what is "organic" in liturgical development and what isn't. We need to keep reading our history so we divest ourselves of nostalgia, and at the same time anchor ourselves more strongly in what is legitimate and work hard to discern what is not.
Books like Thompson's are invaluable on this score. I'm grateful and somewhat in awe of his achievement and hope you'll take a look at it!
From a real review:
Using a wealth of evidence drawn from civic and ecclesiastical statues, tithe lists, saints' lives, art, and architecture, Thompson reminds us that the urban environment was densely packed with expressions of orthodox religion. . . .This book is a stunning achievement. Not only is it a masterful study of the Italian church and lay religion, it calls into question prevailing views of communal society and challenges us to rethink the way we apply terms like "secular" and "religious" to medieval society." —David Foote, American Historical Review