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Aspiring Saints: Pretense of Holiness, Inquisition, and Gender in the Republic of Venice, 1618-1750.

Aspiring Saints: Pretense of Holiness, Inquisition, and Gender in the Re public of Venice, 1618-1750. By Anne Jacobson Schutte (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. xvi + 337 pp.).

The last two decades have seen a great surge in writing about women and religion during the medieval and early modern periods. The dominant theme is the uncertain boundary between orthodoxy and heterodoxy in the practices of Catholic holy women. Beatas, mystics, athletes of asceticism, "living saints," reforming abbesses, and charitable congregations all incurred suspicion and sometimes outright suppression by church officialdom, prompted in part by the hierarchy's determination to regularize and control religious practice, but more intensely by a blend of misogyny and anxiety over women s influence. The climax of this uneasy relationship came with the Council of Trent's decree imposing strict cloister on nuns under the oversight of local bishops and more broadly, as Anne Jacobson Schutte emphasizes in her new book, with the disciplining "confessionalization" undertaken by the Counter-Reformation church, with the Roman Inquisition as one of its main weapons.

The author of many studies on women and religion, Schutte has been a particularly prominent contributor to the Italian historiography on the subject, and her writings in English have done much to acquaint English language readers with that rich vein of scholarship. Aspiring Saints now culminates nearly two decades of research on contested female holiness, especially in Venice, and Schutte's essays and translations over the years have laid out many of the themes treated at length in it. One of the most valuable is her argument that the institutions of Counter-Reformation confessionalization reached beyond elite and middle-class women, who have dominated scholarship on female religiosity, to stifle "aspiring saints" from the populace as well. Her declared focus in the book is on twelve cases of pretense of sanctity, involving sixteen suspects, that came before the Venetian Inquisition in the two centuries following the Council of Trent. Mainly, however, the book is a compendious, broad-ranging account of the t heological and canonical culture of the Counter-Reformation, as worked out in a strict new definition of sanctity. Schutte deploys her twelve cases to illustrate the class and gender characteristics of the Inquisition's examination of would-be saints and their disciples. Owing to the many differences among the cases, however, she is less successful in deriving from them a typology of pretense of holiness.

Schutte explicitly chooses not to construct separate microhistories of them but rather "to draw them into a common field" (xiii). She makes something of an exception of Cecilia Ferrazzi, about whom she has published extensively and to whose extraordinary story she gives extended coverage throughout the book. But Schutte's principal concern is with the Counter-Reformation church's rigorous definition of holiness as a filter for would-be saints. In the end, that broader project rather than the stories of the accused is the book's strongest feature. Individual chapters offer learned accounts of the culture and institutions that shaped the church's responses to aberrant spirituality: the Venetian Inquisition and its personnel and procedures (Chapter 2); the Catholic church's evolving theological and canonical conceptions of sanctity and its counterfeit, and the authorities' view that uneducated, non-elite "little women" were particularly susceptible to diabolical suggestion of their spiritual distinctiveness (Ch. 3); the formulation of a programmatic response to the newly recognized phenomenon of pretended sanctity (Ch. 4); the gradual imposition of strict criteria, evaluated and administered by the Roman Curia, for officially recognized Counter-Reformation sainthood (Ch. 5); the threads connecting female false saints with women prosecuted for sorcery and witchcraft--including some intriguing suggestions regarding the sexual component of witchcraft in convents (105-11, Ch. 6); debates over the use of exorcism in resolving claims of divine inspiration (Ch. 7); heroic fasting and other bodily expressions of women's claims to sanctity (Ch. 8); the use of objects in projecting those claims (Ch. 9); time and space as factors in the construction of an image of exceptional spirituality (Ch. 10); and gender as a determinant of the way holiness was projected and of the Inquisition's disposal of cases (Ch. 11).

Schutte threads aspects of the twelve cases, summarily described in Chapter 1, into her discussions of these themes. The overall impression is less of a distinctive type than of great variety among the aspirants to saintly reputation. They included nuns, Venetian popolane, and peasant girls; parish priests, a Franciscan friar, a well-connected bishop, even a lay patrician; the well-traveled and persons who never left their village or parish; and the remarkable Cecilia Ferrazzi who, under patrician patronage, ruled a refuge for 300 unattached girls and women under direct instructions from the Virgin Mary. Among the accused were a wide range of bodily expressions of advanced holiness: some claimed not to ear at all or to subsist only on the communion host, others manifested mysterious illnesses; the women tended to renounce sex while some of the men appear to have sexually exploited their female followers. Some of the subjects attracted venerating followers, others performed their spiritual deeds in private. Th e thread connecting this diverse group was the claim of special spiritual grace, for the women and some of the men in the form of visions, for others of the men in that of assisting and promoting the female visionaries.

Gender is the issue on which Schutte most successfully blends the individual cases with the theological and institutional context; but her treatment raises a question about the book's main theme. Arguing that pretended holiness was "strikingly similar" to witchcraft and sorcery, she sees Venetian inquisitors' prosecution of all three as results of the "feminization of heresy" in the late sixteenth century. By then the mostly male philo-Protestants whom the Inquisition had targeted in the mid 1500s were fleeing Venice, leaving the mainly female practitioners of the occult and aspiring saints to its tender mercies (95-7). Theologians and inquisitors attributed these offenses to the devil's work, to which socially marginal, uneducated women were seen as especially susceptible. Yet because of that dismissive attitude the Inquisition's penalties were surprisingly mild when they were imposed, and most cases, against witches and sorceresses as well as false saints, ended in an admonition or never even came to trial. In all, only three of the nine women in Schutre's cases were sentenced to incarceration. Their male counterparts or promoters, deemed more responsible, received harsher penalties. The few cases and the Inquisition's temperate treatment of them weaken Schutte's claim that pretense of sanctity was a "significant historical phenomenon" (xiii). As her breakdown of trials during a seven-year period shows, it brought only three women (and two men) before the inquisitors, as compared with twenty-four women (and ten men) incriminated for witchcraft (96).

The real significance of the aspiring saints is the stimulus their trials have given to Schutte's investigation of important themes in the Italian Counter-Reformation. They are the modest hub around which she constructs her learned and wide-ranging assessment of the cultural and institutional changes of the post-Tridentine church which, as her account shows, touched the lives of ordinary "little women" in their individual distinctiveness.
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Author:Chojnacki, Stanley
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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