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God in La Mancha: Religious Reform and the People of Cuenca.

Few recent historical endeavours have been so profitable as the examination of early-modern changes in religious practices, attitudes, and institutions. Scholars are gradually mapping the evidence of European religious change and exploring at greater depth the transformation of some of the profoundest human impulses. Relatively freed from the Protestant or Catholic "confessional" historiography of the past (which nonetheless has contributed greatly to the enterprise), they are able to discover "mentalities" par excellence through the study of the reformations of Christendom.

Spain embraced the reforms of Catholicism with especially zealous rapidity, becoming, as teachers of history never cease to repeat, the champion of the militant counter reformation. Despite this proverbial importance and the recent affection of historians for microscopic local history, however, there has strangely been little investigation of the "grassroots" counter reformation in Spain. In her work on the diocese of Cuenca, Sara T. Nalle supplies an exemplary remedy for this failing. Using Inquisition, parish, diocesan, and other records, she analyses the state of religion in Cuenca through the crucial period when the diocese moved from relative heterodoxy to an enthusiastic Tridentine spirituality, and then towards an almost mechanical form of celestial insurance for the individual. The heterodoxy was indeed relative, however. Spain never experienced anything like the religious strife in France or Germany, and Protestantism was a rhetorical bogeyman and a convenient accusation for the Inquisition rather than a religious movement. The Spanish preoccupation with vestiges of Islam and Judaism was never to be replaced by another clear nemesis and content itself with hunting out signs of Erasmianism and suppressing clerical and lay immorality and "superstition."

In addition to the spectacularly negative machinery of the Holy Office, there was, therefore, ample room for positive inculcation of Tridentine orthodoxy in a population that was often highly receptive. And here the religious homogeneity of Christian Spain enables the reader to see the elements of the Catholic Reform in clear relief. The movement towards a more literate, individual, and interior piety regulated by a more educated and morally elevated professional clergy seems in clear contrast to the earlier less predictable religious impulses arising from local communities. Nalle is at pains to point out, moreover, that the dichotomies and antagonisms between popular and elite or rural and urban cultures suggested for other parts of Europe do not apply in Cuenca, a fact that made the reforms all the more pomerful and thorough. The advancement of the new orthodoxy did, however, encounter the distinctively Spanish conflicts among "Old Christians," Conversos, and Moriscos. In this work there is relatively little concerning the latter, although the expulsion of one thousand Morisco families from a declining population in 1609 must have had considerable repercussions.

Nalle combines thematic and chronological organization to take the reader through the pre-reform, the Tridentine movement in general, the reform of the clergy, the imposition of Tridentine orthodoxy, and the new religious conditions which obtained in Cuenca by the mid-seventeenth century. In doing so, she describes a clergy and a flock that had deployed and absorbed reformed Catholicism by the time much of the rest of the Catholic world was just beginning to feel the first effects of the Tridentine movement. This relatively rapid transformation had slow beginnings, however. in spite of the presence of the Inquisition from the late fifteenth century and the efforts of some energetic reform-minded bishops, the pre-reform left few permanent traces save the ban on Judaism: "most of the usual accusations leveled against the clergy or the laity in 1480 still held true in 1540" (p. 30). A populace ignorant of the rudiments of official Christianity, neglectful of its sacraments and often immoral by its standards remained under the care of clerics who committed many of the same sins and added a few of their own as well.

It was not until the advent of the Tridentine movement that higher educational and behavioral standards for the clergy, the widespread religious instruction of the laity, and the evolution of individual private devotion among Cuencan Catholics began to transform the religious landscape. The Inquisition, having vanquished the traditional foes of Christendom and finding little organized heresy, was useful in enforcing a stricter morality and orthodoxy among both laity and clergy, seeking out, for example, priests who solicited sexual favours in the confessional and eventually moving against fornicators in general. With the presence of the Inquisition always in the background, the positive reforms were dramatic. The educational level of curas rose impressively by the early seventeenth century, when the diocese had more than tripled the number of schools training clergy and 87 per cent of curas born after 1540 bad university degrees. The problems of absentee priests and clerical sexual immorality greatly diminished. These new shepherds also led a more tractable flock, parishioners who knew the basics of correct doctrine and participated in the required sacraments. The new submissiveness was the result of decades of energetic missionary work, parish instruction and of a genuine willingness among many of the faithful. "By mid-century," writes Nalle, "the country was in the grip of what can only be called a catechism craze" (p. 105). She regards the success of catechization and the movement towards individual devotion as, "the first and most important triumph of the Tridentine Church" (pp. 132-33).

Against the regularity of annual confession, catechization, and education, individual Christians in Cuenca increasingly pursued their private devotional lives and participated in more approved collective activities, both of which reflected a renewed, modern Catholicism in the sixteenth century. The new tendency to seek individual rather than communal solace and spiritual fulfilment is evident here as in other analyses such as the seminal work of John Bossy. Nalle follows fruitfully the method of using illustrative anecdotes accompanied by broader analysis and tables of statistics, depicting changes in such significant phenomena as votive masses, the new "hit parade" of religious images, the patron saints of chapels and the membership and devotions of confraternities.

The expansion of devotion in the sixteenth century, the professionalization of the priesthood as a committed cadre of sacramental specialists, and the tendency to use approved channels of grace meant an enormous growth in the ecclesiastical establishment. And here is perhaps the most interesting part of the author's argument, which ties the vitality of the faith to that of Spanish society. The seventeenth-century "derailment" of the vibrant religious renewal in Cuenca occurred as a seeming paradox against the continual growth in the number of priests, chapels, and masses. The social crisis of the early seventeenth century combining the scourges of crop failure, famine, disease, population loss, and economic decline, struck Cuenca with particular severity. Such reverses demanded "an enormous investment in heavenly protection" (p. 174). Interestingly, Cuencans did not go to church any more frequently. Instead they bought future masses which would ease their way through purgatory. In this "Golden Age of Purgatory," religious activity became increasingly mechanical, while the badly needed resources of a dwindling economy were steadily transferred to "unproductive" religious uses. Despite a drastic decline in the lay population, the clergy multiplied and the Church was rich in an increasingly poor country. Cuenca was to become a "vast monument to the dead" (p. 204).

Nalle's documentation of changes in religious practices and attitudes is excellent, with numerous clear, unobtrusive tables and graphs, which are interpreted rather than merely rehearsed in the text. Her use of Inquisition and parish visitation records is particularly effective; in fact seldom have such records been employed to better effect. Her prose is invisibly smooth and compellingly lively. This is work which deserves the careful attention of both specialists and a wider readership.
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Author:Greenshields, Malcolm
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
Words:1266
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