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The Conquest of the Soul: Confusion, Discipline, and Public Order in Counter-Reformation Milan. (Reviews).

Wietse de Boer, The Conquest of the Soul: Confusion, Discipline, and Public Order in Counter-Reformation Milan

(Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought, 84.) Leiden: Brill, 2001. xxi + 4 pls. + 363 pp. Dgl. 200.54 / Euro 911 US $112. ISBN: 90-04-11748-2.

In the past twenty-five years, a number of scholars have examined the role played by the sacrament of confession in late Medieval and early modern spirituality. Thomas Tentler, John Bossy, and Adriano Prosperi are among the most prominent. A fresh perspective is now provided by Wietse de Boer, whose study of penitential practices at Milan both builds on and challenges recent scholarship. De Boer argues that penance is the key to understanding the reforms of Carlo Borromeo, the influential archbishop of Milan (1564-84), and his immediate successors. His investigation falls into two parts, in the first of which he describes the Borromean program from the perspective of conciliar decrees, episcopal instructions, and other published sources. Central to his analysis are Borromeo's Avvertenze or instructions for confessors (1574), which, he argues, focus on the judicial nature of confession rather than on its consolatory aspects. Challenging Bossy, who held that the Counter-Reformation privatized and internalized c onfession, de Boer concludes that Borromeo used his confessors "in a comprehensive ritual and pastoral offensive aimed at conquering souls, changing public conduct and, ultimately, transforming the entire social order" (45). Borromeo supported confession with a variety of measures including the reservation of absolution for certain sins to episcopal adjudication, the use of episcopal courts to intimidate serious sinners, the revival of public penances, and attacks on "occasions of sin" such as taverns, card games, carnival, and dances. A separate chapter studies the development of the confessional, which was designed to separate the confessor from the female penitent, while ensuring that confessions would take place in a public setting. This finding also undermines Bossy's argument that the confessional contributed to the privatization of the sacrament.

In the second part of his book, de Boer samples the vast archival holdings of the archdiocese in order to gauge the success of Borromeo's program. Although the seal of secrecy is as much an obstacle to the modern researcher as it was to the archbishop, de Boer approaches the problem in four ways. First, he examines the efforts of the hierarchy both to enforce the rule of annual confession and, going beyond, to encourage frequent confession of sins. A review of pastoral visitations and the reports of parish priests suggests that although the practice of annual confession was well observed, frequency of confession did not increase as Bossy claimed. Second, de Boer examines resistance to Borromeo's program, especially to the practice of referring cases to the episcopal curia. The severity of Borromeo's views on morality only exacerbated tensions between the archbishop and the secular authorities of Milan. In his third line of investigation de Boer examines the questions discussed by priests during their monthly congregations. He finds that most topics concerned social issues such as usury, theft, and false testimony rather than deep psychological matters. Finally, de Boer investigates attempts to use the confessional to curb superstitious practices such as magical healing. He concludes that failure to obtain the wholehearted support of parish priests led the hierarchy to take such matters away from the confessional and place them before the ecclesiastical courts.

De Boer ultimately concludes that the Milanese hierarchy enjoyed only limited success in its efforts to transform society through the confessional. Although the parish clergy was reformed and a credibility crisis which once undermined the sacrament of confession was thus resolved, the austere moral views of Carlo Borromeo went beyond what the Milanese laity and their leaders were prepared to accept. As a result, Archbishops Gaspare Visconti (1584-95) and Federico Borromeo (1595-1631) at least tacitly backed down from some of Carlo's more extreme demands. Federico in particular replaced the confrontational style and "harsh external constraints" of Carlo with a more humanistic approach and "softer strategies of persuasion and interior discipline" (139).

De Boer's book provides an interesting perspective for understanding the Counter-Reformation at Milan. It is carefully nuanced and places confession within the context of other aspects of Borromean reform such as the education of the clergy and the use of ecclesiastical tribunals as weapons of last recourse. Compelling though its thesis may be, it is important to remember that the work of Borromeo and his successors involved a complex series of initiatives which were directed not just at the confessional but also at the pulpit, the seminary; the episcopal tribunal, the confraternity, and other agencies for education and control. As well, one wonders whether Borromeo himself would have seen the conquest of souls primarily in terms of transforming and controlling society, or whether in his eyes a more fundamental goal would have been the salvation of souls pure and simple. That said, de Boer's book makes a challenging and valuable contribution to our understanding of the place of Borromeo and his successors in the development of the Counter-Reformation and a healthy corrective to recent scholarship about the privatization of the sacrament of confession.
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Author:Deutscher, Thomas
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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