Printer Friendly

The Counter-Reformation in the Villages: Religion and Reform in the Bishopric of Speyer, 1560-1720.

More and more issues have come to be included under the rubric "the social history of the Reformation." Where once historians focused on the reception of Luther's ideas in an urban environment during the critical 1520s, they now cover a wider variety of confessional and social groups and chronological limits. The social history of the Reformation has been transformed into the social history of popular religiosity and confessionalization in an effort to ascertain the "success" and "failure" of the Reformation movement. Marc Forster's study of Catholic religiosity in the lands of the Bishopric of Speyer pushes both the conceptual framework and chronology of the topic still further. Building on, but also criticizing and reformulating, recent work on the process of confessionalization and social discipline, Forster persuasively argues that the agenda of Tridentine Catholicism spread through the countryside in Speyer very slowly in the course of the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so that the attempt to define religious identities first opened by Luther's challenge in 1517 was incomplete even in the early eighteenth century.

In order to chart the slow evolution of Catholic identity in Speyer, Forster frames his study in terms of the contest between "traditional" Catholicism (by which he means the kind of Catholicism that characterized rural life in the sixteenth century) with reform-minded Tridentine Catholicism. At almost every juncture, the traditional forms proved more resilient than the Tridentine model proved appealing. Forster's particular contribution is to show how the conflict between traditional and Tridentine models of Catholic identity was played out at the local level. Although he stresses in his thematic arguments the ability of the locality to resist the imposition of religiosity from the outside, his exposition of the actual process of Catholic identity-building demonstrates that the century and a half after the promulgation of the Trent decrees were marked by a series of accommodations in which villagers and Catholic reformers negotiated a new kind of Catholic religiosity, rather than a direct confrontation of traditional practices and innovation in which one side triumphed over the other.

The central characteristic of the traditional model, to which the Tridentine reformers eventually accommodated themselves, was that the principal role of the church in the rural world was pastoral care in all its particulars. The priest was expected to be available for all situations in which the villagers believed that spiritual authority was necessary: weddings, baptisms, last rites, mass. In all other respects, the more like his fellow villagers that the priest was, the happier his parishioners were. Villagers expected priests to adhere to village morality rather than clerical morality. In visitation reports in the 1580s, some villagers even pointed to the way that priests kept concubines as a positive sign of how priests were integrated into the community, which shows both the villagers' confidence in their own vision of the clerical office and their ignorance of the expectations of the Tridentine church. Eventually, villagers accepted the Tridentine vision of the kind of person should be performing the essential rites of the community. Clerical celibacy and a more austere lifestyle became the norms for priestly behavior, and villagers began to expect such behavior of their priests. That constituted their accommodation to the pressures from above. But they continued to resist efforts to set up the personal piety of the clergy as a model that all good Catholics could be expected to follow.

Forster chose to explore the case of Speyer in part because its slow adoption of Catholic identity stands in marked contrast to the experience of territories such as Bavaria, where Catholic reform went hand in hand with aggressive state-building to produce a reformed Catholic consciousness. State-building in Speyer proceeded even less coherently than did Catholic confessionalization, and that shaped how villagers responded. Neither the ecclesiastical apparatus nor the secular administration possessed uniform and effective instruments for securing obedience. Any attempts to reform foundered on the inability to coordinate the interests of the different authorities over the village. The bishop and his agents and the canons of the cathedral chapter each had their own visions of the kind of Catholicism they wished to impose. Clarification of these jurisdictional controversies within the bishopric occupies a substantial part of the first half of the book. In an odd way, Forster's presentation affirms the importance, if not the primacy, of politics in shaping local decisions. Political fights at the highest levels of the territory undermined local efforts of Jesuits and priests to impose their own Catholic vision.

As I indicated above, I'm not convinced that Forster's evidence quite supports his contention that confessional loyalties dividing villages in the eighteenth century were the result of the local population's attachment to long-standing religious practices instead of a conscious policy of "confessionalization." Forster himself admits that the consolidation of Catholicism in villages came in part from migration of Catholics (both ordinary peasants and priests) from other "confessionalized" regions of Germany, who replaced the Protestant residents who fled during the campaigns of the Thirty Years War and wars of Louis XIV. It would be interesting to know how local Catholic traditions responded to the influx of "outsiders" who seem to have become a numerical majority. Nevertheless, the book does effectively refute the idea that Catholic confessionalism was imposed from above and accepted without comment by villagers.

This book shares the characteristic of many recent anthropologically influenced studies of presenting a treasure trove of incidents to illustrate the interactions of clergy and villagers. One could wish that Forster had subjected some of the incidents to even closer scrutiny, similar to that given by David Sabean in Power in the Blood to comparable events in the neighboring Protestant territory Wurttemberg.(1) But this book provides a useful service, by demonstrating that there was not just one route to modern Catholic confessional identity.


1. David Sabean, Power in the Blood: Popular Culture and Village Discourse in early modern Germany (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 113-143.

John Theibault University of Oregon
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Theibault, John
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
Previous Article:The Ideology of the Great Fear: The Soissonnais in 1789.
Next Article:Fire From Heaven: Life in an English Town in the Seventeenth Century.

Related Articles
Fire From Heaven: Life in an English Town in the Seventeenth Century.
God in La Mancha: Religious Reform and the People of Cuenca, 1500-1650.
The Secularization of Early Modern England. From Religious Culture to Religious Faith.
Territories of Grace: Cultural Change in the Seventeenth Century Diocese of Grenoble.
Literal Figures: Puritan Allegory and the Reformation Crisis in Representation.
Wondrous in His Saints: Counter-Reformation Propaganda in Bavaria.
Reordering Marriage and Society in Reformation Germany.
The Religion of the Poor: Rural Missions in Europe and the Formation of Modern Catholicism, c. 1500-c. 1800.
Pilgrimage to Puritanism: History and Theology of the Marian Exiles at Geneva, 1555-1560.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters