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God in La Mancha: Religious Reform and the People of Cuenca, 1500-1650.

Although Spain is identified more than any other country with the Counter Reformation, the enormous changes in religious practices and beliefs it brought about have been studied largely in the context of the period's most notoriously repressive institution - the Inquisition. In this impressively documented book, Sara Nalle proposes that the Counter Reformation in Spain constituted a genuine educational and religious reform supported by popular and elite groups alike. Drawing on years of research in the archives of the Castilian diocese of Cuenca, Nalle traces the transformation of the magical, intercessory faith of the Middle Ages into the complex mixture of ritual observance, social control, and popular religious enthusiasm that made up Tridentine piety.

Before Trent, most Castilians did not know the basic articles of their faith; concubinage, absenteeism and ignorance were widespread among the clergy. Nalle demonstrates how the Counter Reformation mounted a remarkably effective and far-reaching campaign to educate and reform the moral life of the clergy and catechize the laity. The reforms were successful, Nalle suggests, because they channeled rather than repressed preexisting structures of faith. The new religiosity was increasingly organized and centralized, but it also gave expression to intimate forms of piety. Sixteenth-century Castilians participated enthusiastically in religious brotherhoods, supported orphanages for the poor, and attended mass, but they also were attracted to mystical contemplation, penitential practices and Christocentric devotions.

Although there were few conversos and moriscos in Cuenca, and still fewer Protestants (just one person was burned for Lutheranism between the years 1556-1585), the Inquisition fulfilled an important role. Nalle shows how in the course of the Tridentine period, the Inquisition's mission evolved from one of persecuting heretics to regulating standards of sexual behavior. In keeping with a new puritanism," the Inquisition used its judicial machinery to combat bigamy, fornication and clerical solicitation. Although thousands appeared before inquisitors, Nalle argues that the Holy Office was an accepted, even a popular institution among the majority of conquenses.

Nalle also challenges the notion of the Counter Reformation as unremittingly hostile to education. The Church was undoubtedly wary of the potential connection between literacy and religious dissent, and closely monitored printing and censored all vernacular translations of Scripture. But its catechization efforts and the establishment of seminaries and parish schools actually contributed to an astounding rise in literacy rates. By the end of the sixteenth century, most priests held university degrees, and over half of the males in the cities of Madrid, Avila, Toledo, and Cuenca were literate. (Here and in an earlier study, Nalle has amassed an impressive array of statistics that drastically revise previous estimates of literacy in early modern Spain.) In contrast to Reformation Europe, the inexpensive, mass-produced primers, catechisms and religious pamphlets that were eagerly consumed by Castilians of all strata promoted not dissent but conformity to Tridentine doctrine.

In her final chapter Nalle suggests an intriguing correlation between religious and economic decline. Basing her arguments on extensive archival data, she traces a remarkable increase in testamentary masses for the dead at the beginning of the seventeenth century. During a period of overall population decline and economic stagnation, only the clergy increased in numbers and wealth, supported by "the investment of capital into enterprises that would yield no profit in this world"(205).

Obviously, a study of a single diocese, even one as richly detailed as this, cannot give a complete picture of the Catholic reform. The conformity and relative lack of conflict in Cuenca may not have been as pronounced in other areas with larger minority populations. Nonetheless, Nalle's evaluation of popular compliance with the Tridentine reforms is judiciously corrective rather than apologetic. God in La Mancha stands as a significant contribution to Reformation studies and as an exemplary analysis of the complex relationship between social change and social control.
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Author:Weber, Alison
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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